Billed, quite accurately, as ‘China’s first sex shop comedy’, “Red Light Revolution” marks the directorial debut of Australian born Sam Voutas, who also scripted as well as playing a small role as a Western porn baron. Long time Beijing resident Voutas, who mainly plies his trade as an actor, appearing in the likes of Lu Chan’s superb “City of Life and Death”, spent years bringing the film to the screen, working with local crews and actors.
As well as proving extremelly popular via online video websites in China, the film has been enjoying considerable success on the international festival circuit over the last few years, from winning Best Unproduced Screenplay at Australia’s 2008 Inside Film Awards to more recently picking up the Audience Award at the 2011 Terracotta Film Festival in London. Terracotta have since picked up the film for distribution in the UK, with a nationwide cinema campaign currently underway and a DVD release coming in February 2012.
Zhao Jun stars as portly Beijinger, Shunzi, who starts the film with a run of bad luck, being fired from his job as a taxi driver, losing his wife to another man, and having to move in with his elderly parents (Tian Huimin and Ji Qing). After trying his luck in a couple of embarrassing positions, he meets an old classmate called Jiang (Jiang Xiduo), who tells him that he has made a great deal of money by selling sex toys. Although Shunzi is understandably worried that his parents will lose face, he lets Jiang set him up with a flamboyant Japanese promoter called Iggy (Masanobu Otsuka), who agrees to supply him with stock, promising to pay him back with his profits. Teaming with Lili (Vivid Wang), a young woman he meets while working in a supermarket, the two use her grandmother’s old shop as their base, only to find that the surrounding neighbourhood is extremely conservative and populated mainly by the elderly.
Although made by a writer director who might be perceived as a foreigner, “Red Light Revolution” feels wonderfully authentic, with a great many observations about everyday life in Beijing, paying great attention to small details. Although the subject matter may sound like some kind of taboo challenging excuse for crudeness, it’s handled with charming humour and is certainly relevant, given the facts that Beijing has more than 2000 sex shops, a number which is increasing almost daily, and that China manufactures more than 70% of the world’s sex toys. Mainly shot in a traditional hutong neighbourhood, the film has a naturalistic look, and never feels touristy or as if it is pandering to the western market through exoticism – indeed one of its greatest achievements is that it feels truly universal, and made for locals and export alike.
At heart the film is a fairly straightforward underdog story, with Zhao Jun excellent as the likeable, everyman protagonist struggling to get ahead and against authority, here personified by on elderly communist party neighbourhood watch busybody. As such, though it does feature some social commentary and satire, dealing with changing attitudes in Chinese society towards money and self interest, the film is light hearted rather than combative, and never takes any of the easy pot-shots that might have been expected. Instead, Voutas focuses on problems faced by average people in dealing with bureaucracy, relationships and the need to get ahead, and this all works very well, with the film never having an obvious outsider feel.
Best of all, the film is amusing throughout, with some genuinely hilarious moments scattered throughout its short though engrossing running time. Voutas has a winningly deadpan style that successfully mixes Chinese culture with Western indie comedy sensibilities in a way which very few other films from either Hollywood or Asia have managed. Relying mainly on a witty script, the film only features a few touches of slapstick, with much of its humour stemming from the highly effective cast. Although it does pack in plenty of gags relating to blow up dolls, vibrators and more, the film is really quite harmless, with a playful rather than explicit or exploitative sexual aspect which fits well with its themes.
An amusing take on economics and embarrassment, “Red Light Revolution” makes for very amiable and entertaining viewing indeed, and the film should be enjoyed by audiences of all tastes. Voutas shows a keen and humanistic eye as both writer and director, and it must be hoped that the film will coninue its slowly snowballing success, as more of the same would certainly be welcome.
Sam Voutas (director) / Sam Voutas (screenplay)
CAST: Jun Zhao … Shunzi
Vivid Wang … Lili
Xiduo Jiang … Jiang
Masanobu Otsuka … Iggy
Tess Liu … Tai Tai