Journey through a hidden world
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 6, 2012
“Whores’ Glory,” a sad, stark look at prostitution around the world, is unusual by the standards of contemporary documentary in that its filmmaker, Michael Glawogger (“Workingman’s Death”), for the most part disappears. Prostitutes, madams, cashiers, customers and others associated with the world’s oldest profession largely talk to each other, not the camera. And when they do face forward, we don’t hear the questions, only the answers.
One exception to the camera’s invisibility is a scene near the end, featuring an extended sexual transaction between an older, crack-addicted Mexican prostitute and her young client, who is ultimately unable to achieve climax before she roughly cuts her services short, kicking him out. Glawogger (or his camera operator) is discreet as usual, but the uncomfortable intimacy and shocking explicitness of the scene suddenly make the presence of a third party -- albeit unseen -- glaringly, squirmingly obvious. Just how did the filmmaker gain such access to this tawdry world, where, with one exception (a john who covers his face with a hoodie), no one hides?
That’s only one of many fascinating questions Glawogger’s film raises, then doesn’t answer. “Whores’ Glory” takes a deadpan, nonjudgmental approach, which generally works well, even if the fly-on-the-wall technique makes clear that what attracts flies usually stinks.
Beginning in Bangkok -- in a relatively glitzy brothel called the Fishtank, where prostitutes punch a time clock, then line up for selection by leering clients on the other side of a plate-glass window -- “Whores’ Glory” then travels to a Bangladesh slum before ending in the seedy red-light district of Reynosa, Mexico, known as the Zone. It isn’t a scientific survey, but it does seem to get at a wide price range of the sex trade. Glawogger seems less interested in economics than in emotion, however. “We try to forget sadness with a little laughter,” says one heartbreakingly young Bangladeshi prostitute, “but the pain remains.”
It does. Although Glawogger’s film mentions AIDS, pregnancy, drugs and violence only about once each, it seems clear that the film’s strange title -- which the filmmaker has said is meant to “honor” prostitutes for what they go through -- is meant, at least in part, ironically. That’s abundantly clear from a borderline heavy-handed scene showing dogs engaging in joyless (yet perfectly natural) copulation outside a brothel.
Otherwise, clarity is an elusive target. One customer of the Fishtank observes that it is the men, not the women, who are the commodities in prostitution, because they’re the ones with the money. It’s an interesting, if counterintuitive, notion, but it is belied by the Fishtank’s practice of assigning its employees numbers, like so many pieces of merchandise.
Other observations are simply scary and depressing, such as the comment of a Bangladeshi barber (and brothel customer) that the streets would be filled with rapists if there were no prostitutes.
True or not, his words and Glawogger’s camera make “Whores’ Glory” a harrowing journey into a shadow world that many would like to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s a world of the human psyche as much as of the city.
Contains obscenity, drug use and pervasive sexual content, including sex, nudity and explicit dialogue. In Thai, Bengali and Spanish with English subtitles.