Sex: The Annabel Chong Story
Sex: The Annabel Chong Story
by Greta Christina
Nuts. And I was so excited about this movie, too. I went into it thinking, "What a great subject for a documentary! Annabel Chong, 'The World's Biggest Gang-Bang' woman -- I wonder how she feels about her work, how it's affected her life and her sexuality, what makes her tick." Unfortunately, I left the movie scratching my head, thinking, "Gee, I wonder what makes Annabel Chong tick. I'd love to know how she feels about her work, how it's affected her life and her sexuality." I still think she's a great subject for a documentary. Just not this one. This one was a confused mess.
On the one hand, Chong appears to be very positive about her work and the achievement that made her famous, especially as the movie begins. She talks about the sexual double-standard between men and women, how a man who fucks 251 women in a day would be seen as a major stud and she wants to be seen as a stud, too. She talks about taking control of her life and her sexuality, about how her porn career was a natural outcropping of her intense sexual drive -- a drive that was severely repressed by her Catholic upbringing in Singapore. She talks about how much she enjoys sex and how being a porn actress is, among other benefits, an opportunity to get laid a whole hell of a lot. She talks about empowerment, and changing the image of women as sexually passive, and forging new frontiers for female assertiveness.
But there's an aspect of her life, and of the porn biz in general, that the movie focuses on more as it goes along, an aspect that's not so pleasant or positive. Another side of Annabel starts to show through -- a side that's unhappy, dissatisfied, drifting. You see her cutting her arms with razor blades, not trying to kill herself but not doing groovy self-healing body-modification, either. You see her weeping like a widow when she finally tells her mother about her work, swearing that she'll try to undo the shameful harm she's done and bring dignity back to the family. You see a shiveringly painful description of a gang-rape Chong endured before she got into porn -- a revelation that makes her gang-bang-based porn career seem just a little unsettling. And as the movie goes along, you start to see a lot of sleaze in the people around her. It's not just your standard porno tackiness, either. There's a patronizing sneer that keeps showing up; Ona Zee's snide comments about how Chong's gang-bangery had given porn a bad name are particularly noteworthy. And when you get to the part about how Chong never got the $10,000 owed her for doing the World's Biggest Gang Bang video -- I'm sorry, I know it's an anti-porn cliche, but there's no other word for it but exploitation.
And I left the movie not knowing what to think. See, I'm not all that up to date on my porn star biographies; I'm familiar with Chong and the Gang Bang, and I probably watch more porn than the average bear, but I don't pay much attention to industry gossip, so I don't have a lot of context for all of this. I went into the movie without much more information than any other indie art-house filmgoer. And I left with my head in a total muddle. Is Chong self-deluded? Self-destructive? Empowered and taking charge of her life? Reclaiming her past trauma to get power over it? Reliving her past trauma like a broken record? In a difficult situation but making the best of it? In a positive situation and making the most of it? In a complicated and ambivalent situation, taking what she needs and leaving the rest? Are her porn colleagues really that tacky and dishonest, or is that just what the director chose to focus on?
Maybe I'm hopelessly mired in the Western mindset or something, but this ambiguity was a big problem for me. It's not that every movie, or even every documentary, has to have a single, clear opinion about its subject matter. Ambiguity is a perfectly reasonable response to the world, and if a movie's perspective on its subject is ambivalent, then so be it. But it should be clear about its ambivalence, if that makes any sense. If a director's take on a subject is "This is a complicated and ambiguous world I'm looking at and I don't know what my opinion of it is," then that should be clear. And if you're documenting a part of the culture that's overwhelmingly misunderstood and stigmatized, I think you have an extra responsibility to the gods of clarity. This movie completely failed in that responsibility; as a result, I think it's handing the anti-porn forces a big sackful of ammunition, and as a pro-porn feminist, I have a problem with that. Being a pro-porn feminist doesn't mean you have to see the porn world as an earthly Paradise of flowers and perfection where everyone treats one another with respect and dignity; but it does mean taking some of the more common anti-porn sentiments with about fifty bazillion grains of salt. And the movie's muddled perspective on Chong and her career made it impossible to tell how much of the painful and sleazy stuff comes from motes in the director's eye, and how much of it is just the way it really is.
To be fair, part of the problem is that Chong herself isn't all that articulate. (Or at least, she isn't in the movie: I suppose it's possible that they cut all the scenes where she expresses herself clearly and eloquently.) It's not that she doesn't come across as bright -- she does, very much so, and in fact more than one person in the movie comments on what a good, clear, intelligent writer she is. But when she's talking on camera, especially when she's talking about her work, it tends to come out as this random jumble of sex-positive, pro-porn platitudes, strung together without any coherent theme or thought process, with a little post-modern theory thrown in to muddy the soup even further. It makes it a lot harder to tell whether her pro-porn-feminism is heartfelt when it comes out of her mouth so parrot-like and garbled. It makes it a lot harder to see who this woman really is, what she thinks, how she feels, what she might be like when the camera's turned off. And it makes me wish that someone, ideally Chong herself, had read some of her writing on camera. If she is, in fact, a clearer thinker on paper than she is in person (which wouldn't surprise me, it's not that uncommon), then neglecting to show that side of her did her a grave disservice.
Copyright 2000 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.