Drama, Films, Hong Kong, Recommended posts, Reviews


Charlene Choi shakes off her cutesy girl-next-door image for a dark social drama exploring everyday female lives and the Thai sex industry…

Charlene Choi finally shakes off her typecast ‘underage’ appearance in Hong Kong films, even if it is brief, for her appearance in the harrowing social drama Sara directed by Herman Yau. The film features Choi getting involved with an older man (Simon Yam), after she runs away from home and sexual abuse instigated by her stepfather (Tony Ho). She becomes a journalist; and a 4-month project goes down the pan after being rejected by her boss, following that Sara (Charlene Choi) flees for a rest in Thailand and gets involved in liberating the sex industry.

Sara operates as a film frequently leaping in continuity; guiding us at the start from her disgusting rape at the touch of her stepfather, all the way to fleeing from her family and living on the streets for 3 years. Eventually she meets Kam Ho-Yin fishing in the bay, who takes pity on her and enrols Sara into a prestigious secondary school. It makes little sense for Kam to do this for a strange street-child he’s just met, up until you realise that not only is he abusing his position of power as an important government education office in Hong Kong, but he is also sexually abusing Sara as she offers her body in return for tuition money.

The narrative splits, dancing between the past and the present as we are treated to expositionary flashbacks exploring Sara’s life over 15 years, as she frequently offers her body to Kam for money whilst they hide their ‘sugar daddy relationship’ from his wife, kids, and the Hong Kong public (with his privileged government position at high risk). The narrative in the present follows Sara as an investigative journalist, where she travels to Thailand and meets the young prostitute Dok-My (Sunadcha Tadrabiab), becoming interested in her story and attempting to liberate the child from the sex trade. This use of dual time-periods adds greater tension to the film, as Sara and Kam’s past arguments contrast that of her fights with sex traders in Thailand and her own boyfriend, however with greater tension also comes greater confusion as we frequently dip between timelines with no significant way of discovering where we are in the narrative.

Sara is an interesting exploration into how women are ‘raped’ and abused every day of their lives by men and their very surrounding environments. Charlene Choi frequently mentions how she ‘sells herself’ all the time to Simon Yam for money, education and a way of life; which is humourlessly contrasted with her work at the newspaper and how she sells her dignity to get stories from sordid places and progress as a journalist. The exploration of hard-hitting themes throughout the film is the most interesting part of the script, however multiple narrative strands and a meandering timeline mean that the audiences is left confused and disappointed more than engaged or educated. There are too many exposition dumps, and Yau stretches “tell, not show” to the ultimate length as Choi narrates most of the film like a personal journal or guidebook to the sex industry, however the voiceover’s attempt to give an insight into her character’s emotions falls flat as instead the audience is left frustrated and tired of the constant whining. All of this would be forgiveable, if the character’s didn’t re-tread the exposition with their own narrative directly following Choi’s voiceover (such as Dok-My’s scripted lines feel there only to parrot Choi). It feels very much like a lack of budget, as plenty of time is spent in dull, lifeless locations with little action whilst all the relevant details are exposed through voiceover whilst Choi relaxes on her bed.

Sara frequently feels like a handful of multiple films crammed together into 90 minutes, with stories focusing around Hong Kong, Thailand, her previous life and work as a journalist. There could easily be 3 separate films made from Sara, and all would feel less confusing than the final results, which is probably an issue with the scripting and trying to force too much ‘in’ to the film, both as a way of creating more unnecessary tension and to give a way of explaining Choi’s issues without ever doing anything about it. There is far too much to cover in just two hours, and the emotional impact the film could have delivered instead feels butchered and lifeless. The most interesting parts of the film are the 3 years that Choi spends living on the streets, however this is briefly glossed over in 5 minutes of montage and never mentioned again.

The film itself is a collaboration between director Herman Yau, his frequent team member and scriptwriter Erica Li, and fresh-to-the-role producer Chapman To. Sara plays out as an over-excited melodrama that often waltzes the line between believability and suspense breaking. Choi’s performance alongside Simon Yam is honest and compassionate, however the narrative in places dwindles and feels lost as Choi meanders between Hong Kong and Thailand. Multiple plot strands appear, begin, then dwindle off for most of the film whilst the audience is expected to conveniently forget about these plotholes (such as how did her family track her down, why did the police in Thailand just stand there and watch the violence, how did nobody ever recognise the most important educational person in Hong Kong escorting a young girl or question it, or why did Sara resort to such drastic measures in Thailand when it’s completely out of character from the rest of the film?). Overall, Sara feels overstuffed in the narrative and also underutilised in its emotional impact. The trailer and script made the film out to be more exciting and emotional than it actually was, and perhaps a lack of passionate relation being exchanged for too many expositionary voiceovers leaves the audience feeling cold, confused and detached from the finished piece.

Sara screened at the 2015 Udine Far East Film Festival, and was released in Hong Kong on 5 March 2015. The festival ran from 23 April to 2 May 2015.

About the author

Andrew Daley
News Editor for easternKicks, and a Video Producer for Cycling Weekly based in London, with a passion for East Asian cinema, photography, and the outdoors. Read reviews/articles »
Read all posts by Andrew Daley

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