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Girl$ (Combo Pack)
Having recently watched Michael Glawogger's documentary Whores' Glory, spotlighting the casual attitude toward prostitution in Shanghai, Girl$ plays out like a soap opera written with preconcieved notions pushing for high melodrama. During the opening credits, before the audience has even been introduced to the characters, director / writer Kenneth Bi shows us a nutty worst-case scenario: a man seen only in silhouette handcuffs his Paid Date, kills her, hacks the body to bits with a hand saw, and distributes the pieces in dumpsters and alleys all over the city. Being murdered is undoubtedly a concern for women in the sex industry (or the Paid Date industry, as the characters insist they aren't sex workers), but what should be horrifying feels like an unwarranted 0-to-90 escalation, as if a reel of a slasher movie was accidentally spliced in.
Underneath the threat of painful death and gruesome dismemberment, Bi trots out a number of plots that would be more at home in a daytime soap opera. Icy accidentally destroys her boyfriend's gaming computer, and a new one proves to be expensive, so she comes out of retirement to take a Date that a) could be the murderer and b) her boyfriend could find out about. Lin tries desperately to get her client to return her feelings for him, including friending him on "facelook" after seeing a picture of him and his girlfriend together. Bonnie is finally convinced to go on a Paid Date, but feels strangely self-conscious about it afterward, so she leaves money for the client instead of taking his. The one nicely understated thread is Gucci's, who is reluctant to give up her virginity to just any client. A scene where one prospect turns out to be her brother is funnier and more lighthearted than the rest of the movie would lead one to expect.
Directorially, Bi pushes clunky visual metaphors. During a montage of the girls having a great time together, they accidentally knock over a balloon vendor. Later, on a more dramatic day, Bi shows us a single red balloon flying off into the sky when a character learns something crucial. When the girls reach a crucial crossroads, Bi literally has them stand on a street corner with two sidewalks and two crosswalks, and they turn around and walk in opposite directions. His better techniques are far more subtle, including split-screens to show the way the girls communicate with prospective clients online, and the occasional use of text and other characters on screen as simple exposition. Most of the film is shot in a pretty basic handheld style, designed to accentuate the "reality" of the movie.
Girls never really figures out what it wants to say about these women or the line of work they're in. Seemingly key elements (like a robbery) are set up and then dropped without explanation. Some of Bi's plot points are a bit muddled (one expects that a missing Paid Date is the murdered girl in the opening, but they turn out to be two different characters). The film takes a few more twists and turns before finding an even more melodramatic way to tie the film together (although he skips at least Mega-Dramatic Opportunity), and the message he arrives at doesn't amount to much more than "people are resilient." Girl$ isn't a terrible film, but it has nothing new to say or show about one of the world's oldest professions.
Girls arrives with provocative cover art depicting Bonnie Xian about to unhook her bra, with a much more stylish title treatment and design than the cheap fonts used in the actual movie, which is kind of funny. The back cover takes the angle of visualizing the website on which customers would select their dates. A standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case (with holes in it) houses the Blu-Ray and DVD copy, which itself is housed in a cardboard slipcover featuring identical artwork (aside from the "Combo Pack" banner).
The Video and Audio
Girl$ is offered in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer that's plagued with the most common problems stemming from digital video. Most of the film takes place at night or in dark and dimly lit rooms, so the entire film is plagued with serious, visible banding. Black crush is pretty strong, obliterating any details in the girls' hair or clothing in nearly every shot, and whites occasionally appear blown out. Color, grain, and contrast are all wildly inconsistent, depending on the lighting. During daytime scenes, the movie looks pretty good, if a bit soft. In lower light, on the other hand, skin goes from a healthy brown to gray / green, thanks to the flourescent lighting. Noise rears its head. In close-up shots, fine detail is excellent, and there's no mistaking this as a standard-definition presentation, but there's also no mistaking it as a modern low-budget movie, shot in HD.
Sound is a decent if unremarkable Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Aside from one interesting moment where a girl's moans turn into a blur of sound, there's not a whole lot going on in the movie aside from dialogue and the occasional song / music cue. That dialogue sounds crisp, music does a good job of enveloping the viewer, and lots and lots of white-noise ambience sets the tone pretty clearly. English subtitles are also provided.
Seven production diaries (2:52, 2:07, 0:51, 1:08, 0:55, 1:16, 1:37, SD) are pretty promotional in nature and don't delve too deep. The first and last diaries are the most interesting; the first includes a bunch of footage of the girls rehearsing together, revealing some of the more unusual group exercises Bi had them do to to become friendly, and the last talks about the movie's many love scenes. 3, 4, 5, and 6 are the most skippable: each of the girls describing their character's story.
A trailer for The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake plays before the main menu. Additional trailers for The Treasure Hunter, The Legend is Born: Ip Man, City Under Siege, Confucius, Mushi-Shi, Goemon, RoboGeisha, and Hong Kong Connection are available under "Previews" in the special features (the auto-play trailer is not included here). No trailer for Girl$ has been included.
Girl$ is an underwhelming but passably entertaining film with little new to say. The disc is underwhelming, especially in the PQ department, and the extras are pretty surface-level. Anyone who has an interest in Girl$ can certainly get all they're gonna get out of this movie with a rental.
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