At turns darkly comic, deeply satirical and profoundly unsettling, Three Husbands
brings to a close Fruit Chan’s Prostitute Trilogy, rounding off a set of films that has explored the Hong Kong-mainland relationship on decidedly unusual terms. After launching the series with the small indie work Durian, Durian
in 2000, Chan spun to black comedy the next year for the follow-up Hollywood Hong Kong
, and that film’s most bizarre turns are well and truly topped in the provocative new entry.
At the centre is the super-libidinous Mui (Chloe Maayan), whom viewers first encounter in a one-woman brothel on a sampan in Gin Drinkers’ Bay, where she’s being pimped out by elderly husband Second Brother (Chan Man-lei). Largely mute, seemingly mentally challenged and caring for a baby, Mui commands steady business from construction workers who line up on the shore. Among them is Four-Eyes (Peter Chan), who asks for her hand in marriage.
Wedded life turns out tough as life on land becomes a nasty mess and Four-Eyes gets knackered after all the sex. Mui is taken back to the boat and, after her genitals are declared “cultural heritage” and with father or first husband Big Brother (Mak Keung) on board too, she’s soon under the watch of three men. But business isn’t smooth this time, and life is set to become rougher for Mui.
Laced with twisted sexual scenes and hints of incest, and featuring a central female character who endures increasingly harsh treatment, Three Husbands
could easily appall some in its audience. But threaded through, too, are the cheeky humour and quirky flourishes characteristic of Chan’s work and oblique reflections on Hong Kong that fit with the city’s current social moods. While some observations are put into words – “We can’t afford housing but we can afford boobs,” says one of Mui’s customers – much of the film’s plot and what it all means are left for viewers to decode. On that front, there’s plenty to mull over once Three Husbands
reaches its colourless close, from what Mui’s near silence may represent to, of course, those three husbands. And what’s up with Four-Eyes’ curiosity about the Lu Ting, a mythical sea creature unique to the region?
One force clearly felt is the official push to boost integration between Hong Kong and the mainland, something that in turn has tied in with concerns over erosion of autonomy and identity. Characters bring up the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area initiative, and also popping up is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge – a 55-kilometre stretch of infrastructure seen by critics as more a symbolic link than a vital transport route. One young Hongkonger’s decision to sell herself elsewhere in the Bay Area even pokes fun at government suggestions to seize mainland opportunities.
bubbled out of the indie side of Fruit Chan’s output and holds a stripped-back aesthetic and bursts of guerilla filmmaking, but a string of awards and nominations ensured mainstream attention in the buildup to its full cinema release. Heading the cast, Chloe Maayan offers an extraordinary and uninhibited performance as Mui. The mainland actress, who reportedly gained 18 kilos to bulk up for the highly physical role, handles one startling scene after another. It’s a bold performance fitting for a film that itself feels daring through and through, from its need for difficult waterborne filming through to challenging its audience so thoroughly. Three Husbands
’ agenda may be cloaked in dirty and disturbing allegory, but Fruit Chan’s bent for bold and thought-provoking filmmaking remains completely clear.