'Three Husbands' ('Sam fu'): Film Review

A challenging satire that’s as brilliant as it is infuriating.

Agitating Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan returns to his allegorical roots for his latest, headlined by fast-emerging Chinese actress Chloe Maayan.

Director Fruit Chan has never been one to prefer subtlety when he could wield a cudgel just as well, and his taste for navigating touchy subjects (meaning anything critical of China) via outré genre material — as he did with Chinese reproduction policy and Hong Kong’s obsession with youth and beauty in Dumplings — is in full swing in his latest, Three Husbands. Part satire, part goofball sex comedy and all Chan, Three Husbands makes Hong Kong itself into a character whose conflicted past, volatile present and uncertain fate is dissected through the lens of the world’s oldest profession.

When Chan released Durian Durian (2000), about a mainland prostitute working in Hong Kong shortly after the handover, and followed it quickly with Hollywood Hong Kong (2001), about a mainland prostitute wreaking havoc on a restaurateur and his corpulent sons, the pair of pics simply seemed like two thematically connected stories, existing within the helmer's larger filmography, which also included horror satire (The Midnight After) and contributions to anthologies (Chengdu, I Love You). With Three Husbands, Chan appears to be rounding out his so-called prostitute trilogy, once again satirizing all that is wrong and weird in Hong Kong 20 years after the handover as it hurtles towards inevitable absorption into the People’s Republic of China.

After a bow in Tokyo and a forthcoming release at home in Hong Kong, the film is likely to follow the same path as the other two films, as well as follow Chan’s regular festival circuit, with targeted art house release in key overseas markets not out of the question.

Told in three parts — sea, land and air, or more accurately “nothingness” — Three Husbands begins with dorky Hong Kong construction worker Four-eyes (Chan Charm-man) visiting a typical Zhuhai nightclub just as it gets raided. He comes to the rescue of a compatriot (Larine Tang) arrested as a hostess with no proof of residence, bailing her out of jail. As a Hongkonger who goes to the mainland to be a prostitute, she represents Chan’s first tip of the hat to the shifting economic sands and balance of power in the SAR. Later, Four-eyes is back home, still frustrated, and heads to see a prostitute working from a junk in Aberdeen. Mui (the earthy, luminous Chloe Maayan of Long Day’s Journey into Night), who is pimped out by her one-armed husband, Second Brother (Chan Man-lei), has earned a reputation for being a happy hooker of sorts: insatiable, pliant and, best of all, silent. Also involved in the scheme to make money off her buxom body is Mui’s possible father/first husband Big Brother (Mak Keung). When Four-eyes becomes smitten with the exploited woman, he marries her and takes her to live on land in his cramped apartment with his cranky grandmother (Ruby Cheung Suet-fun). All the while, the club hostess is looking for Four-eyes in order to make good on her debt.

The first two acts are loaded with horrendous sex when Mui is not being poked and prodded by various men, many offering expert opinions on what drives her. Some think she’s mentally ill, others chalk up her nymphomania to abnormal genital development, marveling that, “Her pussy could become a cultural heritage.” There’s even a female-friendly papaya iteration of Call Me by Your Name’s peach incident. It’s a lot to endure.

The bad sex is numbing, and it’s supposed to be, but at first glance the most troubling element of Three Husbands is Mui’s utter lack of agency or a voice — which is Chan’s point, though ultimately there could be more than one. Is Mui Hong Kong? If so, are the three husbands Macau, Zhuhai and China as connected by the new, oft-referred-to bridge that now links the mainland with (and tightens the grip on) the former colonies? Or are the husbands the three cities on the bridge, leaving Mui as…who exactly? Are they the three governments of the SAR’s formative history — the British, the semi-autonomous current legislature and Beijing — each out to (insert vulgar euphemism for sex here) her, Mui’s voice and wishes be damned? Chan and co-writer Lam Kee-to have waded into a thorny quagmire that, regardless of how anyone might feel about the film (derision is to be expected), will get its viewers talking.

The final act sees a weary Mui wandering around a fishing village, persecuted by the wives of myriad customers, pitchforks in hand, and unsure where to go, what’s safe and where she belongs. It’s not at all understated, but the pic’s cumulative effect gets under your skin and rattles around in the brain.

Three Husbands is arguably Chan’s most visually symbolic film to date, loaded as it is with indigenous mythology (Mui might also be a mermaid-esque dolphin creature) and varying tones. Cinematographer Chan Ka-shun’s steady, unfussy camera leaves room for Maayan — who is remarkable, even without dialogue in a recognizable language — to do the heavy lifting, drawing attention to itself only when it must, most markedly in the closing moments with Mui and her three husbands on the open sea. The color slowly leaches from the image, except for the vibrant red of the Chinese flag on the boat, putting something of an exclamation mark on the film.

Production company: Nicetop Independent Limited
Cast: Chloe Maayan, Chan Charm-man, Mak Keung, Chan Man-lei, Cheung Suet-fun, Larine Tang
Director: Fruit Chan
Screenwriters: Lam Kee-to, Fruit Chan
Producers: Doris Yang, Fruit Chan
Executive producers: Chan Wai-keung, Chan Chi-fun
Director of photography: Chan Ka-shun
Editor: Tin Sup-fat
World sales: Golden Network Asia

In Cantonese and Putonghua
101 minutes