The world's oldest profession is one of cinema's oldest subjects, sometimes employed for pathos or political metaphor, but often glamorized. Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory is no Pretty Woman. But neither does it qualify as an expose.
The movie, which shifts from Thailand to Bangladesh to Mexico, aspires to a cinema-verite style. Yet it's unusually well-lighted and -composed for on-the-fly footage, and includes scenes that appear to be staged.
The film is also weirdly aestheticized. The opening sequence, in which Bangkok hookers gyrate in a picture window and use laser pointers to attract customers, is set to a trip-hop tune by cult star Tricky. This prologue yields to some verse — by Emily Dickinson, of all people — and these words: "a triptych."
That doesn't just mean that the movie is divided into three parts; the term is also a reference to tri-panel European devotional paintings. Religion is one of the themes of the film, which interrogates the influence of local beliefs. In Thailand, working girls pray to a Buddha who is both benevolent and pragmatic. In Bangladesh, Islam doesn't prevent prostitution, but it does (supposedly) rule out fellatio. And in Mexico, the movie finds crack-smoking sex workers who worship a skull-headed Virgin Mary and wish devoutly for "a good death."
The director and his crew shot at the film's various locations for only about 10 days each. But they did extensive preproduction, and the result is remarkable access. The movie introduces memorable characters, including brothel managers (in the first two episodes, though not the third) and customers who range from sad to scary. It also provides a strong sense of each environment.
Bangkok's Fish Tank is a clean, upscale joint whose young, dolled-up women punch a time clock; they can leave after work, and spend their earnings at "host bars" where pretty young men engage in a sort of prostitution themselves. (Their clientele is exclusively female.)
In Faridpur and Reynosa, prostitutes are confined to a particular area — and to a life that borders on slavery. The former's "City of Joy" is a constricted urban warren, while the latter's "La Zona" is rustic and dusty, but otherwise they seem very similar.
Glawogger keeps up the appearance of naturalism, forgoing narration, explanatory text and interviews with outside experts. It requires viewers to guess at relationships, back stories and other information that some might consider significant. This includes the age of the younger Faridpur prostitutes, who look to be in the 13- to 14-year-old range.
Yet the movie, the third in Glawogger's globalization series, is less impromptu than its style suggests. In his press-kit comments, the director acknowledges that "there is not a single interview that was not paid for in some form. ... We had to pay for the trust that we had established." Such purchased interviews may not contribute to the audience's trust.
Glawogger calls his approach "nonjudgmental," and Whores' Glory is certainly not a lecture on prostitution's evils. But the filmmaker is not being neutral when he adds hip art-rock music by PJ Harvey and CocoRosie. To combine stories of exploited Third World women with feisty songs by female Anglo-American rockers is to flirt with glamorization.