A triptych. That's how Michael Glawogger's masterful documentary Whores' Glory begins. Three panels, each depicting women in the oldest profession on Earth, the biggest pane is the Bangladesh 'City of Joy', it is also the longest segment of the three, but why is this so? It is best to start at the beginning; the 'Fish Tank' in Bangkok Thailand.
THE FISH TANK
The first scene depicts a shameless array of Japanese fused pop-fashion prostitutes that dance unabashed suspended above a seemingly normal street in a see-through glass room. Their hyper-coloured aesthetic and laser pointers get the attention of passer-by's, attracting the horny pedestrians inward. A buzzy ethereal indie pop song croons in the background, exasperating the true longing and disparity of these women.
Cut to the actual fish tank which could be described as a waiting room, a line-up or perhaps even an amusement park pellet gun game. Beautiful made-up women preen and pout side-by-side with each other, enticing the hungry, lonely, desperate, bored and sallow men. The 'host' of this establishment convinces the shopper that this girl is what you're looking for with the enthusiasm of a used car salesman, once he gets the required numbers as represented by each girls button badge he steps over to the microphone, number 226, 230 and 267 come on down! They drop their pillow and strut out of the tank into the waiting arms of the 'john'.
Glawogger's style is pure aesthetics and fly-on-the-wall narrative, he has no concern for bias or exploitation, this is how things are, the man-made nature that everyone just accepts.
Some inspired scenes are set-up in a beautiful mise-en-scene of placement in a displaced situation. They sit, surrounded by artifices of their lives, they confess as one would to a video diary, there is some surprises in their words, straight from the whores' mouth as it were, but a critical insight into the world of a prostitute is only given so much attention before the documentary dreamily wafts on to the next scene, accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack of the whispering vocalist.
Culture is certainly the focus here also, and in the first segment it is clear that Thailand is going through a sort of crisis. Most of the scenes and fantasies represent what is all too common and popular in Japan; the fetishizing of the Shibuya-fashioned lass and, later the expensive trends of host clubs, handsome boys that live off serving women in bars that persuade purchases of expensive drinks and other non-sexual services.
It is one of the most inspired scenes when a prostitute leaves her place of work to visit her favourite host bar. The cycle is complete, artificial connection being received then delivered, a pay-it-forward for the transactions that void loneliness.
The customers are another major component of this segment, each one that briefly appears is nauseating, from an overweight American with a cowboy hat, to a foreigner that speaks fluent Thai and demands a discount right in front of the girl he has chosen, to perhaps the most common customer of all; a man who swears fealty to his wife but insists on visiting such places anyway. Glawogger lets us muse on such ideas and the preceding scenes of the autonomous nature of the business that consumes before the film side swipes into the next location.
THE CITY OF JOY
The Bangladesh bazaar or 'City of Joy' is the longest part of this documentary for good reason. Thailand and Mexico bookend the journey in a less offensive way, despite the doomed nature of the business, the true squalid hell of this profession is most present in Bengal. The caste system denotes what you can be, will be for the rest of your life, so it is perhaps saddest to see these women doing what society demands of them.
We get a better insight into the complex misery of these women and their co-existence in this maze-like bazaar of flesh, but make no mistake, there are no fantasies here, and this is strictly survival. The mother of the house protects the girls to an extent but also mostly exploits them; trading them away as goods in a marketplace. She herself is not thriving, barely surviving and in one scene her layabout husband smiles goofily as she candidly states that her baby daughter, shown in the foreground, will most likely become a prostitute.
We visit different women of different ages in these made up rooms, we see men come and go at all hours, the doors close then later open as the woman carries a basin of water and 'stuff' is dumped. The rooms they inhabit are cleaned ritually and the cycle begins again, the cycle is much more vicious here, the air of desperation is much more fetid. The women grab the men forcefully demanding they accept their services, demanding payments but also never really refusing the men's awful bargaining skills. We get a perspective from these women and a new hire that cannot seem to cope. We get a little drama as tensions escalate between greed and jealousy and we get an insight into the male customers who would go crazy and probably just rape anyone if the city of joy did not exist.
We take all of this at face value and here a desperate plea from one of these tragic women before the documentary eventually shifts into its final phase.
The final location is Mexico in 'the zone', an open place outside, where a man at the gates accepts all incoming cars. These automobiles slowly drive around and around in a circle, incoming and outgoing these four wheel drives and souped up sedans slowly purr down the road, men peering out the window at each whore in the doorframes of these motel-like rooms.
The sexism and hate is more evident here, men go 'wild' with these girls, as the whores will do anything, no doubt enhanced by all the crack cocaine they are ingesting. Do not be fooled however it is the women here that reign supreme. If any 'john' was to cross them, the unseen force not once evident in the film would make an appearance. I am talking of course about the pimps. The ladies make the rules, the men obey but spit violently in their cars, cursing and muttering calling the girls bitches and sluts and showing off in front of their friends, unwarranted machismo.
It is an interesting power play, and the closest this documentary attains to glory, which is to say still very far from the mark. The most and yet least explicit scene is one transaction we see. In the most unemotional, unsexual and uninteresting way, a prostitute and her client have sex on screen. It is a numb and mute experience that should cause no shock or discomfort. It is a transaction like any other, the rules are set, both parties (almost) benefit. A candid monologue from another whore reveals she has been doing it for twenty years, her actions and stories certainly denote that sex for her is akin to breathing for us and we laugh, well what else can we do?
So, why the triptych then? Religion. Each fragment mentions religion extensively, the Thai girls pray to the altars and mini-temples that they will get good business, the Bengal girls pray that they will survive and perform religious rituals to cleanse their rooms after the deed is done, and the Mexican girls pray to the holy death, an enigmatic figure that embraces death and celebrates life, a nihilistic blend of Christian and other faiths that perhaps fit best in the context of this profession.
Glawogger completes his globalization trilogy with the most stunning documentary I have ever seen, it astounded me with its candour and unassuming nature, it enticed me with its harrowing eye candy and dream-like music and it appalled me with the simple fact that this is the reality and this and other, much more heinous acts are being performed every day and every minute. Making sense and adjusting to this life is the only glory these women can hope for. They lead doomed lives, and desperately try to avoid making sense of the how and why they are where they are. Glawogger lets us take these deep and meaningful thoughts away, he does not exposition them nor even comment upon them.
Whores' Glory is a truly incredible piece of work that must be seen to be realized.