Writer: Au Kin Yee
Director: Tracy Choi
Female-led narratives are finally being given more space in contemporary filmmaking in the UK and US, and the We Are One Festival is a chance to see different international perspectives on women’s lives. Tracy Choi’s 2016 film showing as part of the We Are One Festival looks at the changing fortunes of two friends, thrown together in unusual circumstances to navigate the transition into early adulthood, Sisterhood plays like a romantic drama.
Alcoholic and depressed, the middle-aged Sei finds a newspaper advert notifying her that her former best friend Ling has died. Returning to Macau from Taiwan to see her former colleagues and close pals, Sei’s mind takes her back to their days working as masseuses together and the life she built with Ling.
Sisterhood may be set in the seedy world of massage parlours with extras but apart from one scene and some frank conversation between the younger members of the cast, writer Au Kin Yee’s film has a fairly straightforward relationship format with the older Sei wistfully remembering the past, her memory prompted by occurrences in the present day which take the audience back to happier times.
Choi cuts between the two eras effectively as the various stages of Sei and Ling’s relationship plays out, first a supportive friendship within a larger group of girls known initially by their workplace numbers 18, 19, 38 and 8 (known as double-4) and seen indulging in various Sex and the City-like activities – having dinners or drinks together, lunching, karaoke and laughing whenever possible.
But Sisterhood rises above its formulaic structure with an unspoken LGBTQ+ angle that fills the story with warmth, a love between the two protagonists that never needs to be spoken. Very quickly the characters settle into a form of domestic bliss with Sei caring for Ling, cooking, cleaning and washing, creating a comfortable life together that is filled with happiness.
Yet some of the most entertaining scenes are in the massage parlour as the nervous young Sei (Fish Liew) learns the ropes, an innocent in a corrupt world surrounded by cackling old-hands and shady men. The audience gets a sense of the exploitation of these mostly orphaned girls and their need to eventually hide the past in order to find a husband. But it’s not all negative and some fun comes from the girls jealously fighting over clients and sharing their experiences.
It’s a shame that some of that wider context and the interaction between the four friends is too quickly replaced by the twosome, yet Jennifer Yu as Ling develops a chemistry with Liew that feels credible and complicated at the same time. The drab outcomes of the surviving friends’ live is well imagined, with Gigi Leung as the older Sei conveying all the disappointment of a stilted life and a broken heart.
The very sudden change in temperature that eventually separates Sei and Ling is never fully explained in Choi’s film and a little more time to explore how the women respond to external perspectives on their job and their intimacy would help, but as a study of female friendship, Sisterhood demonstrates that whatever your connection, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Available here until 9 June 2020