Girl$ follows four young women and their experiences in the world of “compensated dating”, where the girls are paid to date and not necessarily have sex. Of course, sex is an inevitable byproduct of the business, and the girls are subject to the same dangers: diseases, perverted clients, and even a killer who’s out there killing and dismembering the working girls. Nonetheless, the girls forge on because they need to pay the bills and make a living.
As a rule, I'm generally wary of films that feature dollar signs in their titles. Actually, I'm pretty wary about movies with titles that feature any of the symbols sitting across the top of my keyboard. Well, except for the trusty ampersand. I mean, everyone knows that ampersands are harmless. But dollar signs? Substituting as the letter S? That's just obnoxious. So, with that in mind, rational or not, I was a little cautious about going into director Kenneth Bi's 'Girl$.' Unfortunately, that caution turned out to be mostly justified. Though the film offers an occasionally interesting peek into the provocative world of "compensated dating," the end results are oddly uneven, superficial, and ultimately rather pointless.
Set in Hong Kong, the story follows the lives of four female escorts, Ronnie (Seli Xian), Lin (Una Lin), Icy (Michelle Wai), and Gucci (Venus Wong), who trade companionship and sexual favors for money and presents. Icy usually acts only as an agent for the other women, but is forced to go on dates again in order to make extra money. Meanwhile, the free-spirited Lin starts to develop feelings for one of her clients, Ronnie ends up angering the other women when they realize that she's secretly paying the men she dates, and sixteen-year-old newcomer Gucci wants to trade her virginity for -- yes, you guessed it -- a Gucci bag (real classy). Also, there's a subplot about the murder of a fellow escort as well, but that's not really important. At least, it doesn't seem to be important to the writers who basically end up completely ignoring it. In fact, just by writing that last sentence, I think I've actually given that subplot more thought than the filmmakers did.
While there is some attempt to pull back the curtain on the seedy world of compensated dating (which is more or less prostitution), the film ultimately fails to delve deeply enough, and only skims the surface of the psychology behind the escorts and their dates. Likewise, each of the characters' individual subplots seems incomplete and hastily finished, and though individual bits can be engaging, as a whole the film ends up feeling very pointless and disconnected.
Even worse, the subject matter itself has an inherently off-putting quality to it (especially the exceedingly creepy Gucci virginity storyline), and the sometimes light, flippant manner in which the topic is examined doesn't help matters much. To its credit, the movie attempts to take some dark turns later on, exposing some of the more dangerous consequences of the characters' profession, but the execution lacks real weight, making most of these melodramatic, occasionally violent aspects feel out of place. This is especially true of the aforementioned murder subplot, which is seemingly (and rather graphically) set up as a mystery that will become important to the overall plot… but never does.
On the upside, the four leads are actually pretty good in their roles. Each actress crafts a unique (though often irritating) personality, and their performances add a slight dash of believability to their otherwise thinly developed characters. The group also shares nice chemistry with each other, and their various conversations and interactions together feel natural. Their friendship forms the emotional core of the story, and while the writing leaves a lot to be desired, the cast almost manages to sell the women's poorly plotted hardships and dilemmas.
As one might expect based on the plot summary, there are a fair number of sex scenes (or "bed scenes" as they're called in the special features) scattered throughout the runtime. With this in mind, there are times when the movie starts to have a certain "Skinemax" quality. Still, despite the healthy amount of nudity and sexual content, there's nothing too scandalous or explicit here, and the real focus remains on the girls' emotional story. Though considering how mediocre that story ends up being, perhaps that was a poor decision.
Going along with the sexual subject matter, Director Kenneth Bi often employs a voyeuristic aesthetic in his visuals. The film starts off with a particularly disorienting and heavily stylized sequence, and while things mellow out from there, obscure angles, shaky camera movements, and cross-cutting montages all add a kinetic, albeit shallow sense of energy to the proceedings. The director also tries to liven up the girls' frequent online conversations by having the computer text flash on screen along with pictures of their virtual avatars. Most of these stylistic flourishes add up to little more than empty flash, but they're fairly effective for what they are.
While I wanted nothing more than for 'Girl$' to disprove my silly assumptions about movies with stupid symbols in their titles -- it's actually done nothing but further validate them. There are some solid performances here, and the film does have a little more to offer than its "Skinemax" cover might imply… but not by much. While some of the subject matter and storylines are indeed provocative the film lacks the necessary substance to make them worthwhile or thought provoking. Instead, the tone is inconsistent, the subplots feel half-realized and haphazardly finished, and though flashy, the style is pretty empty. In other words, it's exactly what one might expect from a movie with a dollar sign in its title.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Giant Ape Media presents 'Girl$' in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A BD-25 disc and a separate DVD disc are housed together in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. Some trailers play upon start up (only skippable by pressing the top menu button on your remote) before transitioning to a standard menu. The release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though quite strong at times, the transfer is home to a few notable inconsistencies that hold back the video presentation.
Detail is often quite strong, revealing pleasing clarity and depth in the image. The film features a stylized look that occasionally has a cool cast and fairly drab saturation. With that said, there are several scenes that feature very rich hues that pop nicely from the screen, offering splashes of vibrant reds, greens, and yellows. White levels run a little hot and appear slightly blown out, and blacks are deep but sometimes crushed. The most notable drawback to the image seems to stem from its digital source. Noise is apparent in several sequences, especially low light shots which have an overall lower grade look to them. Likewise, faint banding is also visible from time to time.
Though there are some occasional artifacts, and the film's visual style is a little uneven, 'Girl$' features a solid transfer.
The film is presented with a Cantonese Dolby True HD 5.1 track along with optional English subtitles. Functional yet limited, the mix provides a decent audio experience but doesn't offer much in the way of true immersion.
Speech is clean and crisp throughout and there are no major technical anomalies or balance issues. The overall soundstage is front-loaded and small in scope. Some very faint city ambiance makes its way around the room, but effects work as a whole is pretty sparse. There are some rare exceptions to this, including a few instances where typing noises are echoed throughout the surrounds, and while this proves to be an effective bit of sound design, the rest of the track is so restrained that moments like this almost seem out of place. Despite the anemic sense of atmosphere, the film does feature strong dynamic range and separation in its score and music selection (though the songs are quite annoying), and there are some deep, thumping low frequencies as well.
With its tiny soundstage, the track doesn't really have a lot going on. Brief glimpses of immersive sound design show potential for a more enveloping experience, but these instances prove to be too fleeting and gimmicky to leave much of an impact.
'Girl$' is an odd, mostly unsuccessful attempt at provocative filmmaking, one that ends up going nowhere. Pointless and uneven, the movie feels underdeveloped and unfinished. The cast is decent but the potentially controversial subject matter isn’t examined deeply enough to leave any kind of an impression. The video has some inconsistencies but is solid overall, and while it gets the job done, the audio mix is very basic. The included supplements offer some brief interviews from the cast, but their insights aren't very interesting. This is a mediocre disc for a heavily flawed film. Skip it.