When the starlets-for-sex scandal hit Hongkong in the '70s, Shaw Brothers did not shy away from the topic but cashed in with the sexploitative Call-Girls, a quasi-biopic that probably left the aisles steamed up and viewers guessing. Review by Stephen Tan.

The obvious reason for watching The Call-Girls (Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures DVD) is the nudity and the sex but it is probably the tabloid factor that helped make this one of the top 10 box-office hits in Hongkong in 1977.

Hongkong was hit by a series of starlets-for-sex scandals in the '70s and this movie is an attempt to cash in. The film opens with a number of Shaw cast and crew - including kung fu action star Wang (Dirty Ho) Yu and actress Lin Chen Chi - being interviewed about the starlets-for-sex scandal. In a highly self-referential note, noted filmmaker Chang Cheh says: "I haven't paid attention to this so I have no comments. Many directors have used this as subject matter to make movies. I guess they should know better than me." As a parting shot, the film's director, Cheng Kang, says: "You will know after you've watched the movie."

Real-life sexpot Shirley Yu as the actress
blackmailed into servicing special clients.

The film proper starts with CID officer Danny Lee (who only became widely known after John Woo's The Killer but who spent many years as a Shaw actor) rounding up a number of prostitutes and interviewing them about their lives.

Street hooker Lau Wai (Lau Wai-Ling) is involved with a photographer who gets her into the movies. On the side, she services clients who want movie stars. While Lau has no qualms about what she does, Chan Ying (Cheng Suk-ying), who originally dreams of being in show business, decides that such a life is not for her. Not prudish about taking off her clothes in front of the cameras but when she is told to meet a "film contact" and loses her virginity in the process, she decides to make a break for it, only to find that there is no way out.

Chen Ping... a dentist among her clients.

The most sensational story focuses on Pak Siu Man, played by real-life sexpot Shirley Yu. At a gambling house, Siu Man catches the eye of a film producer who wants her to be in his next movie. Director Lee agrees and, in no time, Siu Man is the toast of the town. While she appeared to have stopped servicing her clients, her former pimp decides to get in on the action and wants her for a selected clientele who is interested only in bedding movie stars. Threatened with physical abuse and blackmail Siu Man agrees but eventually turns into a depressive who decides to take an overdose.

While enjoying the supple charms on display, movie fans are sure to speculate on the real-life people behind the story. Who was the real Siu Man, who is shown acting in what looks like a lavish period production? And the benevolent director Lee - could this be the famous Li Hanxiang, who is no stranger to soft porn Shaw movies such as The Golden Lotus and Sinful Confession?

Another plus for The Call-Girls is Shirley Yu who once told the newspapers: ""Some (men) gave me cheques of $100,000 without even getting to hold my hand." In real life, a car accident put her out of circulation for a year; in 1996 she sold her apartment to raise $4 million for a movie, Bloody Friday, which flopped; and is reported to have lost nearly everything in the stock market. But she was hot stuff when this movie was made.

Nude pallbearers... a sign of sisterhood.

Call it an inspired sense of silliness, the most memorable or eye-popping scene comes when the girls all decide to strip (in commiseration with Siu Man 's death) and then act as pallbearers at her funeral.

Apart from Shirley Yu, the other named actress in The Call-Girls is Chen Ping, who made her name in films such as Kiss Of Death, Illicit Desire, Crazy Sex and more mainstream fare such as Killer Clans and Mighty Peking Man (which also starred Danny Lee). In a consoling-elder-sister type-of-role, Chen Ping doesn't get to disrobe as much as the other actresses but there is enough to ensure that your bucks are not spent in vain. Much older than the other girls and seen as slightly over the hill, she isn't as popular as the rising stars but still gets to service an ageing dentist in-between her studio work.

While the nudity and sex ought to satisfy the crowd, the film is let down by its simplistic dialogue and weak characterisations. It looks as if the girls had no friends or family members to counsel them before they embarked on their tinseltown adventures, especially in the case of Chan Ying; or they are so utterly naïve about the adult film industry.

Overall, the cinema verite approach attempts to give some street credibility to The Call-Girls - some scenes are shot with a hand-held camera - but it's really nothing more than soft porn masquerading as hard-nosed documentary.

Note: The Call-Girls DVD is not available in $ingapore.

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