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City of Desire
Year: 2001

Alex Fong and Sandra Ng
Director: Raymond Yip Wai-Man
Writer: Manfred Wong
Cast: Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu, Alex Fong Chung-Sun, Josie Ho Chiu-Yee, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Blackie Ko Sau-Leung, Alice Chan Wai, Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu, Cheung Tat-Ming, Law Kar-Ying, Lau Siu-Ming, Charlie Cho Cha-Lei, Lee Wing-Ho, Philip Keung Ho-Man, Chan Chiu-Chiu, Miao Felin, Lo Yi, Chan Ping-Chi, Leung Cheuk-Fung
The Skinny: Interesting socio-cultural info highlights this portrait of Macau disguised as a triad drama. This is an educational film, but an empty cinematic experience.
by Kozo:
     Though Sandra Ng plays a character named Sup Sam Mui (Sister Thirteen), this is not a sequel, prequel or unheralded spin-off to her award-winning role from Portland Street Blues. This Sister Thirteen (or Sandra in the subtitles) is the expatriate daughter of a Macau hotel kingpin, who returns to her family on the eve of the former colony's one-year anniversary of repatriation. Since dad (Lau Siu-Ming) has gone senile, they need her to oversee the business. A progressive, western-schooled woman, Sandra is against Macau's primary source of income, gambling, and is glad that her family business is only hotels and not casinos. However, she soon discovers that her family is knee-deep in Macau's other flourishing industry: prostitution.
     Immediately, Sandra objects to the use of women, and even looks at ways to possibly improve and/or clean up the family business. This is tougher than imagined, however, though not because of any resistance within the company. Chief lieutenant and old flame Johnny (Alex Fong) isn't derisive of Sandra's naiveté; he merely points out the obvious, that Macau is a different place than she's used to, and the sex industry and its players are complicit in the trade. Meanwhile, the gambling troubles of old pal Pepper (Josie Ho) bring the human issues of Macau's sin industry into sharp focus. Sandra would like to affect the world about her, but the lessons she learns are supposed to demonstrate just how difficult and morally murky things truly are.
     Director Raymond Yip and writer/producer Manfred Wong were responsible for the superior triad dramas Portland Street Blues and (to a lesser extent) Those Were the Days. Those films mixed comic book situations with surprisingly fleshed-out character work. City of Desire goes a different tack, and attempts a deep portrait of Macau the city. Sandra's position as a former resident allows copious exposition on Macau's current social and economic state, and how the worlds of gambling and prostitution are inherent to the territory. Assuming that writer Wong is accurate about the information he conveys, there is a lot to be learned in simply listening to the characters drone on and on about Macau. That information, plus the generous location footage and pleasing cinematography, make this a welcome travelogue.
     However, City of Desire is purportedly a film and not an advertisement from the Macau tourism board. The plot that gets woven into all the exposition involves Pepper's continuing entrapment in Macau's vices, and Sandra's attempt to come to grips with the realities of the city. One character, the morally murky Father Kam (Anthony Wong), posits his own view of Macau and Shenzen as the modern day Sodom and Gomorra. He likens Sandra's plight to that of Lot, who has the opportunity to leave the twin sin cities but must resist the temptation to look back. That obvious metaphor is never really capitalized on, and the actors (while turning in effective performances) never seem to inhabit any actual characters. The little "humanizing" details like Johnny's unrequited love for Sandra, or Father Kam's crush on a local schoolteacher (Kristy Yeung, in a brief and rather unnecessary cameo) come off as nothing more than your standard hackneyed script fodder. Furthering this is a side plot involving policeman Cat (Blackie Ko), who finds himself helping an illegal mute prostitute (Alice Chan). While the scenes are generally interesting, they're also somewhat obvious in their attempt to add human depth to the ponderous script.
     City of Desire means well, and the abundance of fun (and not so fun) facts about Macau are welcome for the uninitiated. However, the actual storyline that the film presents is far from compelling. Sandra Ng once again proves that she's a fine lead and always worth watching, but she could use better vehicles. To be honest, I would have preferred an actual sequel to Portland Street Blues. Heck, if they wanted to they could have set it in Macau, anyway. (Kozo 2001/2002)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Laser
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen