Born Into Brothels
Runs Fri., Feb. 4–Thurs., Feb. 10, at Varsity
Just announced as one of the five Oscar nominees in the documentary category, Brothels is one of those films you admire more than you enjoy. In a year when—for once!—there aren't any new Holocaust docs to monopolize the prize, the plight of bastard and orphan kids living in Calcutta's red-light district with their prostitute mothers seems like the next best thing to pluck the heartstrings of white Western guilt. Bad enough that millions of Jews died, but here we have a fresh outrage in our own century to lament. And if we can't ourselves travel to Calcutta to live among and film these children, as co-director Zana Briski has done, at least we can see a movie and feel sad about it.
Certainly, the ticket price is less than that of a minimal contribution to the Red Cross for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia. Compassion always come cheap. And no matter how worthy the project of Briski and her collaborator, Ross Kauffman, Brothels is both oddly intimate and distanced. The camera work is up close and personal, befitting Briski's immersion in these children's lives. She began visiting the red-light district as a photojournalist in 1995, then launched an initiative to make photographers out of the unloved urchins by giving them cameras of their own. After living among her avid young pupils in 1998, she returns three years later with video camera in tow.
Briski's degree of access and trust is fairly remarkable. We hear the mothers frankly discussing their debased lives. We see the johns, but no sex, and witness ugly domestic scenes that make child neglect seem the daily lot for these kids. This is normal, Brothels emphasizes, and what is exceptional is that Briski and company even bother to visit, note names, and treat the young with some kindness. In return, the kids—most aged about 10 to 14—respond eagerly to the attentions of the woman they call "Zana Auntie."
Their photos aren't bad either; even in its slums, India's colors make it perhaps the most photographic nation on earth. Then there's their commentary—the captions, as it were, to our carefully framed perceptions of their exotic plight. "One has to accept life as being sad and painful . . . that's all," says one kid. Unfortunately, when Briski mounts an exhibition of their work back in New York at Sotheby's, her charges can't come along to meet the pearls-and-chardonnay crowd. Brothels would've benefited from more such dissonance, instead of simply matching Briski's compassion to bottomless need. One can't help but think how Michael Moore or even Morgan Spurlock (whose Super Size Me also got an Oscar nom) would be more willing to confront the powers that be—whether the men who actively exploit these families or the municipal powers that ignore them. In voice-over, Briski is prone to earnest commonplaces like "It's another world" and "Without help, they're doomed." The effect is like watching a CARE card come to life: Yes, there's unspeakable misery and suffering in the world, but we didn't cause it—and there's precious little we can do about it.
That's what I mean by Brothels' distance from its audience (not its subject). Unlike the child-sex trade chronicled by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, Calcutta's whorehouses aren't patronized by Westerners. Unlike the Holocaust, this isn't a case of one familiar European culture violently assaulting another. Unlike the tsunami, this isn't an unpreventable natural catastrophe. The victims and victimizers alike are Indian; cause and effect are contained in a culture we don't share. To put it differently: We're not implicated, despite Briski's best efforts and intentions. Without providing a phony happy ending, she chaperones a few brothel kids to an international photography conference in Amsterdam, where one of her proud students says of his work, "It is truth." Brothels is true, and powerful, in the same blunt way. The film reveals how its subjects are miserable, but their misery is unsurprising. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Runs Fri., Feb. 4–Thurs., Feb. 10, at Grand Illusion
The 10th screen iteration of Les Liaisons Dangereuses moves the action to the lacquered mansions and flowering pleasure grounds of Korea's late-Chosun period. Though the baroque soundtrack has a plus ça change ostentation, E J-Yong's transposition illuminates, with satisfying crispness, the hyper-Confucian high society of the time, as well as the underground Catholic movement. "Koreans are too fond of sex," opines a character in Hong Sang-soo's latest film, Woman Is the Future of Woman, and this holds true here—active loins and erotic paintings jar this chafingly formal universe at every turn. Lust is put in the service of revenge, itself set in motion by thwarted lust. "The world is so full of vice, and men are beasts," Jo-won (Bae Yong-jun), our jaded antihero, fully immersed in vice and beastliness himself, notes to a pious virgin. In a neat twist, China—source of Confucianism and, in Korea's case, of Catholicism—is invoked as an earthly paradise, where lovers can escape into anonymity. (NR) ED PARK