A former masseuse revisits her hometown and reminisces about her past life and loves in Macau filmmaker Tracy Choi's feature debut.
"This is no longer the Macau I know," says the protagonist of Sisterhood as she visits the city after nearly two decades away. It's a perfect summary of how her hometown has transformed itself from a quaint colonial backwater to Asia's answer to Las Vegas, but it could also describe the film itself. A technically capable and socially reflective melodrama, Tracy Choi's feature debut gently breaks new ground for Macau's as-yet non-existent film industry, and it just about merits its competition berth in the city's inaugural international film festival last week.
Born in Macau but a graduate from film schools in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Choi has utilized the technical know-how and assistance she received from abroad to convey something much more than just an intimate youthful romance. While starring a largely Hong Kong cast and enlisting quite a few of Johnnie To's long-time Milkyway Image collaborators — producer Ding Yuin-shan, screenwriter Au Kin-yee and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung — Sisterhood offers an authentic ode to the passing of distinct lifestyles and landmarks among Macau's ordinary folk.
The film begins in Taiwan, where Sei (Gigi Leung), a pale, bloated, heavy-drinking innkeeper, is forced to confront a long-suppressed emotional trauma which has haunted her since she left Macau for Taiwan 15 years earlier. Having heard about the death of her long-estranged best friend Ling, Sei returns to her home city and reconnects with her old acquaintances and haunts. Her past life is relayed through extended flashbacks.
Back in the late 1990s, the teenage Sei (Fish Liew) begins work at a massage parlor and befriends the older, more street-wise Ling (Jennifer Yu). Initially the wide-eyed one in the pairing, Sei eventually grows into the role of protector as Ling's hard-partying life spirals out of control. Ling's pregnancy initially consolidates their bond, and the two young women set out to build a family.
But tensions begin to sizzle as neighborhood gossip starts taking a toll on their relationship, a friendship spiced up by romantic feelings which the pair failed to fully comprehend themselves. It's up to the older Sei, through her search for Ling's son, to gradually piece together the truth behind her break-up with Ling — which happens amid the celebrations of Macau's return to Chinese sovereignty on Dec. 20, 1999.
This specific historical setting is perhaps crucial to Choi's narrative, given the exponential changes sweeping across Macau as the city's new Beijing-backed masters transformed it from a peaceful place — as seen in the archive footage embedded throughout the film — into one big gaudy playground for casino-craving mainland Chinese tourists. This sensitivity toward circumstances is what makes Sisterhood more layered than its maturing-masseuse premise (or its street-slang Chinese title) might suggest.
Unlike the long line of Hong Kong films that have used sex-worker storylines as a pretext for retrogressive, titillating presentations of young women — Philip Yung's May We Chat or Port of Call, for instance — Choi doesn't milk her protagonists' profession for onscreen sleaze or sex. Rather, the director zeroes in on how business in these massage parlors reflects Macau's boom and doom in the past two decades.
Amid all these social changes, Sisterhood is a vivid account of sisters doing it for themselves. This is a story where women march on, with gain or pain, without the need to wait for a male savior — a perspective most evident in Sei's final choice between her peaceful but loveless life in Taiwan, with her doting husband (Lee Lee-jen), or a return to a much more cash-strapped and uncertain future back home.
While Leung and her fellow "grown-up" stars (Stephanie Che and Teresa Mak) provide passable turns as the thirtysomething versions of the characters, it's the younger cast who keep Sisterhood running. The Malaysian-born Liew's natural turn as the ingenuous Sei offers a good counterpoint to the grubby sassiness with which Yu enlivens Ling. While the film could use a more coherent edit, the poised storytelling is still proof of a new talent in the making. This serviceable melodrama, teary histrionics and all, suggests Choi could certainly aim higher next time around.