City of Desire

Reviewed by YTSL

Some days, I am all eager to write about a film because I want to spread the good word about its existence.  This is not one of those days.  Instead, my main reason for feeling compelled to pen a review of this Raymond Yip Wai Man helmed offering is to tell people to not be fooled -- like I unfortunately was -- into thinking that that whose large cast of, if not A list, at least respectable actors and actresses had made it look like it might be “Portland Street Blues 2” would be anywhere close to being as intelligent, sensitive, engrossing and compelling as the two Triad dramas he had previously directed:  I.e., “Portland Street Blues” and the work entitled “Those Were the Days”  whose central character also is a colorful plus complex member of the “Young and Dangerous” crowd.

To be fair, it’s not as though CITY OF DESIRE is horrendously bad (or even the worst 2001 effort that I’ve seen -- Instead, that “honor” would go to “Cop Shop Babes” or “Goodbye Mr. Cool”, one more movie whose cast list made it look as though it could be a possible new installation of the popular series that may have concluded with “Born to be the King”).  Indeed, that whose scene-setting opening shots of Macau were quite stunning and attractive started off well and intriguingly:  With the return of its chief protagonist -- a liberal-minded “modern” woman named Sandra Lui -- who is referred to by more than one individual as Sap Saam Mui (Sister Thirteen in Cantonese) -- and is played by Sandra Ng -- from abroad to take over the reins of what she thought was a successful family business that consisted of not much more than hotels and other innocent tourist facilities...but soon found out also encompassed nightclubs (of the kind that had “hostesses” and also bare-breasted lap dancers) along with the kind of saunas and massage parlours that provided more than just health club type services.
If only CITY OF DESIRE had focused more on Sandra Ng and the Category IIB film’s two under-utilized leading men, who come in the impressive form of the absolutely hunky Alex Fong (whose brooding character is named Johnny) and the versatile Anthony Wong (playing a less than orthodox member of a Christian order known as Brother Kam Tai Chi).  From my vantage point, it really ought not have taken all that much to weave a single worthy feature-length story as well as posit an interesting set of relationships involving:  The woman who was struggling to come to terms with her inherited position as the head of a morally problematic commercial empire; one of her appointed lieutanants, who was actually less comfortable than he could make himself sound about being one of the many individuals who made large amounts of money from having many an impoverished woman sell her body (and make it available for the use of a number and variety of men); and a man whose priestly garments and essentially good soul could not prevent him from -- nor obscure the fact of his -- lusting after the other sex.  And goodness knows that it’s not as though Sandra Ng, Alex Fong and Anthony Wong would be unable to -- plus have not been known to previously and quite successfully -- carry a movie.
For some reason though, producer-scriptwriter Manfred Wong elected instead to throw in a number of other (one-dimensional) characters, a few subplots plus some unnecessary cameo and/or guest appearances -- by the likes of the admittedly very sweet looking Kristy Yeung as well as Law Kar Ying, Ronald Wong, Cheung Tat Ming and Charlie Cho -- into the Lai Yin Fai lensed picture.  Among that which I didn’t think added much to the movie was the segment that centered on the individuals played by Blackie Ko and Alice Chan.  Although they are not screen presences I can’t stand (unlike certain actors and actresses I could name but won’t...), I felt that the duo’s appearance in CITY OF DESIRE undermined the film since their characters’ supposedly sad but romantic story -- which effectively begins with his rough diamond of a policeman (who is called Cat) encountering her deaf-mute illegal immigrant (named Man San) while on a supposedly routine check of one of Sandra Lui’s “entertainment” facilities -- was truly lame as well as not particularly believable.
Additionally, by itself or if incorporated into a bona fide prostitute drama, the section of CITY OF DESIRE that focused on a gambling addict named Pepper (Josie Ho’s character turns out to not only know Brother Kam but also have been a childhood playmate of Sap Saam Mui) and her prostitute pal, Yo Yo (who I think was portrayed by Miao Fei Lin), might actually have amounted to something.  In this work though, it only served as sensationalist plus tragic cautionary tale of two women who are precisely the kind who would get themselves into a deep hole that they have great difficulty digging out of together, individually or even with the help of (potentially) powerful friends in a supposedly godforsaken place like Macau (which Brother Kam likened, along with Shenzhen, to the Biblical Soddom and Gomorrah).
Two other aspects of CITY OF DESIRE that irritated me quite a bit were Josie Ho’s part in the proceedings and the hypocrisy of the project as a whole.  With regards to the former:  While I respect Ms. Ho as an actress and her publicly stated decision to not be seen only or primarily as the daughter of Stanley Ho, it really can be more than a bit difficult for those who know about her family connections to not find it ironic and incongruous for her to be playing a poor girl who feels out of place in the ritzy Casino Lisboa (which Mr. Ho owns along with its adjoining hotel and other prime Macaonese leisure spots).  As for the latter:  It should suffice for me to state that I find it unseemly -- as well as hypocritical -- that a work whose makers purport to be sympathetic to the ethical conflicts that its main characters have about Macau’s entertainment business pretty much consisting of gambling and porn would look to visually appeal for an audience by way of draping itself in images galore of scantily clad females who do not demand that much in return for performing the lewd acts that moneyed men desire them to enact.

My rating for this film:  5.0