Neon Goddesses
Hong Kong 1996
Directed by Yu Lik-Wai.

A slice-of-life documentary about three girls who have migrated to Beijing to try their luck and earn some money. We don't get to learn very much about these women, both because of the short running time (46 minutes) and because of the style of the film, which lingers at length observing particular scenes in their lives without any sort of omnicient narrator to describe the background of their lives.

Interestingly, the plot synopsis printed on the back of the VCD says more about the movie than is actually in the movie. For example, the synopsis states that the first girl, "Yu Quin, with a degree in the lyric arts, sets out from her native village, leaving her two year old daughter behind. She works as a bar hostess in a night-club frequented by the senior cadres and the nouveaux riches, but retains a nostalgia for her past." Well, maybe this is true but when watching this segment of the film I was never aware of her degree, and assumed she was living with her daughter (for whom she talks about hiring a nanny). Her clients in the nightclub are never described. What we learn instead is that she is 33 years old, but some people think she looks younger, and doesn't own any of her own furniture (her landlord owns it). She also knows a pretty wicked joke about Taiwan.

The rest of the synopsis is similarly flawed, or at least, more descriptive than the film itself. Part of the problem may be the subtitles, in that they do not always appear when someone is talking, and they do not appear at all during the end credits, when one of the women continues to talk about her life experiences. Still, it doesn't seem like enough lines are dropped to account for the variance between synopsis and film.

There are two more stories after the first. The story of the second girl, Hu Jin, bogs down in an extended analogy about getting lost in the tangle of Beijing streets, not knowing which way to go, with only one way being the road to success.

The story of the third girl, Zun Ji, is the most arresting of the film. She is dynamic and interesting, and tells terrible stories about kicking her drug habit, and of a childhood sweetheart who robbed, and was caught, hoping to earn enough money to come visit her.

Framing the stories is the singing of another woman, a haunting, beautiful voice. The director was inspired to make this film upon hearing her sing, and I can well believe it. Clear and pure, yet somehow exhausted and worn, the song seeps into the stories and we are encouraged to see these women in the same way.

NEON GODDESSES looks very good for an independent film. The cinematography is precise and rarely feels indulgent. It is not surprising to discover that director Yu Lik-Wai was the cinematographer on the very documentary-style Ann Hui film ORDINARY HEROES.

Another 12 min short appears on the VCD, a black and white tale about a guy who likes making Chinese Opera motions with his hands while in the dressing room. Apparently there is more to it than that but the short has all of the pretention that the main feature manages to avoid, and is tiresome despite its short running time.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 22, 2005.

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