Of all the films to get slapped with an X rating this year, Wayne Wang’s Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive is easily the most outrageous. Like the other recent X’s of note (they include Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), the movie is being released without an official rating — something distributors are perfectly within their rights to do. Instead, the film’s ads have featured a completely unofficial A (for adults only) rating. Whether or not this marketing ploy pays off is anyone’s guess, but make no mistake: Life Is Cheap is not for the fainthearted.
The film’s graphic highlights include footage of live ducks being drained of blood in Hong Kong food markets; explicit porn-magazine photographs picturing the genitalia of pregnant women; live shots of a man defecating; and staged scenes in which a hand is gruesomely dismembered and a man devours excrement. It’s clear that Wayne Wang wants to shock people — and in Life Is Cheap , there can be no doubt that he succeeds.
Yet to what end? Wang’s other movies — the best known are Chan Is Missing and Dim Sum — are quaint little comic meditations on the subject of Chinese-American identity. The pleasant, overrated Chan won the young director a lot of attention, but Wang, despite the freshness of his ethnic themes, hasn’t exactly gone on to become the Chinese-American Spike Lee. In Dim Sum, he seemed to get a big kick out of demonstrating that transplanted Chinese citizens actually go to McDonald’s — a joke every bit as patronizing as the stereotypes Wang was trying to deflate.
Now he has thrown quaintness to the winds. Set in Hong Kong, Life Is Cheap is the most avant-garde film to play mainstream theaters in many years. Wang’s semicoherent narrative centers on a young man (Spencer Nakasako) of Japanese- Chinese extraction who journeys from his native San Francisco to Hong Kong. His mission: to deliver a mysterious briefcase to the local mob boss. The plot — a mock mystery, like the one in Chan Is Missing — is barely even a thread here. Instead, Wang fills the movie with fragmentary diversions: a man impishly explaining the fine points of ”sex dancing”; a foot chase through Hong Kong back alleys that is literally one of the most dizzying sequences ever filmed; and, of course, all those naughty bits.
Wang’s images are often sensuous and exciting. He’s obviously imitating the raw documentary-collage technique of Jean-Luc Godard, complete with feverish jump cuts and actors delivering halting confessional monologues to the camera. Yet Wang’s hypnotic style would be more appealing if he put it to better use. Life Is Cheap appears to be a Godardian essay on the cruelty and mystery of Hong Kong, but most of the time you can’t tell what it’s about. Godard’s ’60s films often seemed to be unfolding in a trance; Wang is too eager to douse a scene in wiseguy humor (in one scene, a prostitute keeps holding up a phallic vegetable). His jokiness is the flip side of his toxic-shock imagery, a way of getting a knee-jerk response out of the audience. Sometimes subversiveness in art is cheap, too. D+