What’s sexier than the trials and tribulations of a struggling Chinese fishing village? Almost everything. Domestic abuse, forced marriage, alcoholism: these are the erotic themes of Dik On’s sole directorial effort, Love in Sampan. Yes, I think this is about as bleak as softcore sex gets.
LOVE IN SAMPAN
original title: 舢版92 (Shan ban ’92)
Hong Kong, 1992, Dik On
Perfectly timed with Kiu’s newly discovered sex drive, Wah (Hoh Man-Gui), a hunk who has just arrived in the village, takes a job at Kiu’s parent’s store. Sparks fly. Just as their love is blossoming, Kiu’s dad has an accident and can no longer support the family by fishing. In order to continue paying their son’s college funds, Kiu’s parents decide to sell off Kiu to Scumbag Wong. Scumbag Wong is, of course, fucking delighted.
Kiu drowns her sorrows with naked shower hugs with Tai Kim. Her dad, previously a reasonably guy, repeatedly calls her a bitch. A big stinking wedding is organised. The depressed Kiu sneaks off and is approached by teary-eyed Wah. Wah beds the virginal Kiu while the wedding party rages on outside.
Wong returns from the wedding reception, drunk and ready to consummate their sham marriage. Stripping down Kiu, he is horrified to find she is no longer a virgin. After a village witch hunt, Wong and his lackeys drown Wah. Fuck! Her boyfriend dead, Kiu settles into abusive married life. Wong delights in torturing Kiu with a creative combination of ropes and ice.
Kiu seems to lose all hope. She starts drinking alone. Meanwhile, her friend Tai Kim is having her own boyfriend troubles. Her boyfriend has recently dumped her, stolen her money, and sent a repulsive pal to rape her. With their mutual hatred of men and a shared belief that “all good men are dead” in tow, Kiu and Tai Kim comfort each other physically in their grimy shower.
Kiu’s awful being is derailed by the appearance of Man (Daniel Chung Sai-Kuen), a university student, and yes, a hunk. Wong asks Kiu to show Man around town. Man is writing a graduate thesis (or “theosis”, as he calls it) on village life. Man teaches Kiu a few English phrases – including “fucking cute” – and takes her to the worst disco in the world.
Unsurprisingly, they hit it off and fall in love. This ignites the wrath of the jealous Tai Kim, who wants some more lesbian loving from Kiu, and the enraged husband, Scumbag Wong. Climaxing with a mid-coitus confrontation while a storm brews in the background, things end violently.
Love in Sampan is essentially a series of softcore sex scenes that are, I suppose, designed to titillate, only they don’t because they are generally either scenes of domestic hell, or swamped with guilt and sorrow. It doesn’t help that wrapped around the sex is a bleak, soul-crushing melodrama that demonstrates the horrors of being a woman in a backwards world. The decrepit village backdrops only add another sad layer of grime. Erotic, right?
But it is this grim tone that makes Love in Sampan more interesting than your average softcore Cat III. This is a cruel film. Its female characters are stuck in a living nightmare. But their plight is genuinely engaging. The characters aren’t exactly well-rounded, but Asuka Tamami and Mitsutomo Saiko both manage to convey a real sense of despair and longing for something better.
I also liked that the film promoted a fight against outdated values. This is, however, thrown out the window in the final moments of the film. While it ends, weirdly enough, on a happy note, a bit of tacked on narration tells us something that (without ruining the ending) essentially undoes any anti-authority leanings Love in Sampan may have expressed by bowing down to standard moral codes.
Love in Sampan is a fascinating film. It’s worthwhile viewing for fans of Category III cinema, though a more discerning audience will be put off by its misanthropy. Throughout the early and mid 90s, Hong Kong had a knack for pumping out morbidly depressing softcore films, and this is up there with the grimmest.
Love in Sampan was once available on DVD, but like many Category III Hong Kongers, it has fallen out of print. If you manage to find the DVD, be warned, the print is horrendous and the subtitles stink.