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Three Husbands
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by Jay Seaver

"Sharp - if highly specific and sexual - satire."
4 stars

I'm not in a position to wonder too much about the critical reception "Three Husbands" has received in its native Hong Kong; even more than most movies from the region, familiarity with its satirical targets, language, and other pieces of context will almost certainly enhance a picture that is already an impressive bit of independent filmmaking. It's the sort of film that's built to be a critical darling, especially with filmmaker Fruit Chan Gor returning to the sort of thing that first made him his name twenty years ago, maybe flattering the art-house audience a bit.

It opens with "Brother Four-Eyes" (Chan Charm-man) at a brothel just across the water in Zuhai, seemingly making time with a girl who claims to also be from Hong Kong (Larine Tang) before the police raid the place. His shtick involves saying he'd marry a girl, and it seems to be sincere, as he actually pursues Ah Mui (Chloe Maayan), who plies her trade on a boat docked off Lantau Island. Voluptuous and seemingly insatiable, she's too good an earner for "Second Brother" (Chan Man-lei) to let go easy. He eventually relents, but life on land (and off her back) is strange for Mui, while the frequency of their lovemaking is among the things that have their neighbors looking askance.

So, what's the metaphor here? Is Mui Hong Kong, passed between men who both exploit and claim to love her, or is that maybe more the way an outsider would read the situation rather than the sort of movie Chan would make for his neighbors a generation after the handover? Even if that's not it, there's still not a moment involving her or the general set-up that doesn't feel like it's about more; Mui is too blank a slate and the events a little too cheeky for it to just be taken at face value. Chan is certainly talking about the base-level urges of love and sex and how they get mixed up with the commercial, although the specific ways that relates to Hong Kong and the Tanka people never quite snapped into focus.

It's also a bit of an issue that Mui is positioned as such a metaphoric stand-in for larger ideas that she seldom gets to come into her own as a character rather than as an insatiable sexual vessel. Chan is smart enough and self-aware enough to make it clear that Mui's situation is twisted to the point of perversity but seldom lets that drive the story, despite the fact the moments when it's most about Mui herself are when Chloe Maayan shines. It's not a terribly verbal performance unless grunting and moaning counts, but the moments when Mui is off her back are unfailingly good work on Maayan's part as Mui seems utterly confused at having time to herself or overcome with unfocused lust. It's the sort of performance that gets noticed for being daringly sexual, but is committed all around.

Chan Charm-man is more conventionally good, though he impresses as a relative newcomer, handling the moments when Four-Eyes goes from kind of comedically pathetic to straight man to horrified well, avoiding the kind of considered self-awareness that a more seasoned actor might not be able to avoid (or that a viewer might project upon him). There's nifty overlap between his sad-sack and unstable moments, and he's able to play a scene so that the character looks weak and unconvincing more than the actor. There's not quite chemistry between him and Maayan, but the're on similar wavelengths, all wanting sex but not equipped to make it part of something more.

It sounds kind of grimy, and the film certainly has that side, but it's often very funny; Four-Eyes and the other two husbands are disreputable to the point of being criminal, but they're also amusingly dumb, and as much as the filmmakers are willing to wallow in the characters' worst, they also are able to milk laughs out of how sex can become slapstick, or how even as they're being cynical, men can often be more than a bit frightened by a woman whose sexual appetite exceeds their own. There is also a certain outrageousness to some of the sex scenes in that Chan often frames them to at least feel like guerrilla filmmaking, highlighting that this production with its grainy cinematography and small cast of unknown actors sometimes had to steal shots in the middle of the street.

Because Hong Kong films like this are made for such an intensely local market, there's a good chance that many watching might find themselves wondering if they were walking down that street that day and just didn't notice - or did and smirked. They know what Fruit Chan is getting at here, in detail, even if foreign critics have to turn it over or reach for something more general while still enjoying the dark and dirty comedy.

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originally posted: 03/19/19 09:02:14
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Directed by
  Fruit Chan

Written by
  Fruit Chan
  Kee-to Lam

  Chloe Maayan
  Charm Man Chan
  Man-lei Chan
  Qiang Mai
  Larine Tang

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