Red Light Revolution (China, 2010)

‘Sex, shagging, making love, whatever you want to call it, everybody does it. But nobody does it more than us Chinese; because, when there’s a billion of us, that’s a hell of a lot of people getting it on.’ The opening narration of Red Light Revolution sets the tone for the frank and funny comedy that follows. Shunzi (Zhao Jun) is a rotund taxi driver whose luck seems to be going from bad to worse: in the opening scenes, he loses his job, breaks up with his wife and is forced to move in with his elderly parents (Tian Huimin and Ji Qing) until he can get back on his feet. Reduced to a humiliating supermarket job that involves promoting a diet product, Shunzi catches a break when he becomes reacquainted with former classmate Jiang (Jiang Xiduo) whose smart business attire indicates that he has done well for himself since leaving education. Jiang explains that he sold sex toys before going into events management and offers to facilitate an introduction to Japanese marketer Iggy (Masanobu Otsuka). The eccentric Iggy supplies the stock needed to set-up a sex shop on the condition that he will receive a substantial cut of the profits, and Shunzi teams-up with fellow supermarket worker Lili (Vivid Wang) to launch the venture out of her grandmother’s old shop. Comedic complications ensue: the shop is located in a seemingly-conservative hutong area populated by elderly residents, while Shunzi is worried that his parents will ‘lose face’ over his career change.

In a broadly cheeky manner, Red Light Revolution captures some of the contradictions of modern China: sex is still a relatively taboo subject, with nudity heavily restricted in mainstream media, yet Beijing alone has more than 2,000 sex shops and China manufactures a large share of the sex toys that are sold around the globe. The film presents Beijing as a place of family values, moral standards and local traditions, yet also a city for free enterprise where well-connected foreigners can make the proverbial ‘fast buck’ with attention-grabbing advertising strategies. Australian writer-director Sam Voutas is also a foreigner, but he has been based in Beijing for much longer than those seeking to take advantage of the economic boom, accumulating acting credits in such films as Foreign Devils (2008) and City of Life and Death (2009) while putting together his debut feature. As such, Red Light Revolution conveys a genuine sense of community, with the ageing Beijingers pitching-in to protect Shunzi’s business when neighbourhood watch inspector Old Qu (Bing Bo) comes around (the forgetful Shunzi has not secured a permit for the shop). They warn Shunzi when Old Qu is on patrol, stalling the suspicious inspector while the racy inventory is hidden away and the shop is temporarily disguised as a shoe-shining business. However, these kindly residents also want Shunzi’s product, although they are too embarrassed to visit the shop during opening hours. Instead, they purchase stimulants in the middle of the night, thereby keeping the proprietor moderately profitable, if sleep-deprived.

In comparison to other Chinese comedies, Red Light Revolution has more in common with the spirit-raising humour of Feng Xiaogang than the recent low-budget farces that have sought to emulate the surprise success of Crazy Stone (2006, our review here). The film is at times laugh-at-loud funny, with throwaway jokes and verbal exchanges that are as hilarious as the set-pieces, but occur within situational context. Characters and narrative develop in tandem, with Voutas maintaining a steady pace that allows the romantic relationship between Shunzi and Lili to occur while setting up various obstacles for them to overcome, avoiding the unnecessary sketches or sub-plots that prevent the genre from playing overseas. Leading players Zhao and Wang are nicely-matched with his affability and her spunkiness resulting in genuine romantic chemistry, while the well-chosen locations (mostly suburban areas with some glimpses of the commercial centre) make the capital city an appealing backdrop. Red Light Revolution is an independent production, yet its aesthetic sensibility is far removed from d-Generation urban squalor. Bright cinematography ensures that this is an accessible comedy for a wide audience and the soundtrack of songs by Beijing rock bands is the appropriate musical accompaniment to the bawdy humour. Due to its subject matter, Voutas’ film has not received an official theatrical release in mainland China, although it has enjoyed a warm reception at a series of special film club screenings around the country. As the presence of blow-up dolls and vibrators is less problematic internationally, Red Light Revolution should become a crowd-pleaser throughout 2012.

Red Light Revolution opens at the Prince Charles Cinema in London on Chinese New Year, January 23rd, 2012.