Young Man Kang is the immensely talented Korean-American filmmaker with a remarkable gift for cross-jumping genres. His first dramatic feature “Cupid’s Mistake” (2000), made for a teeny $850, offered a Cassavetes-style glide across the sharp edges of a love quadrangle, while his second feature “1st Testament: CIA Vengeance” (2001) invaded classic B-Movie territory with an adrenaline rush of non-stop action. His latest feature is “Soap Girl” and this time around Kang moves into the world of the so-called grrl power with a delightfully entertaining drama about life in a Hollywood massage parlor and the surprising young ladies employed therein.
“Soap Girl” focuses on Maya (Kerry Liu), who arrives one night at the door of a massage parlor seeking employment. Maya looks every inch the tragic case: disheveled clothing, no visible means of support, and a halting command of English. The parlor’s owner is Mamasan (Tomiko Lee) who foregoes the job interview process and hires Maya on the spot, providing food and shelter and a fashionably slutty new wardrobe. The other girls at the parlor are initially wary of Maya, who is visibly uncomfortable with a few aspects of her work…especially the prerequisite “happy ending” that most of the customers expect (this is not the place where one seeks out a therapeutic Swedish massage). With uncommon speed, Maya acquires the skills to make herself one of the most sought-after girls in the establishment, and a chance meeting with a thirtysomething poet who never lost his virginity (Luciano Saber) brings Maya the opportunity to come to terms with a dark secret which long obscured her chances to find happiness.
Okay, so “Soap Girl” is not the most intellectually challenging film around. If you want an intellectual challenge, then go watch an old Stanley Kubrick film. But if you want pure, undiluted, 100% guaranteed entertainment, “Soap Girl” is the film to enjoy. This film is a wonderful work of fun, with a marvelous ensemble cast who have more energy, sex-appeal and charm than any group to strut and vamp across the camera in recent memory. “Soap Girl” has the most beautiful group of big-screen massage therapists (nudge nudge) to grace the screen, with special mention deserving of Gina Hiraizumi as the flippant self-described bitch with the inevitable heart of gold, Kate Holliday as the slick chick who can’t decide whether to stay blonde or brunette, Hiromi Nishiyama as a voice of calm and reason, and Mari Tanaka as the vulnerable pack member. And as the dignified matron, Tomiko Lee provides a vision of dignified grace and mature beauty as the good-hearted Mamasan.
“Soap Girl” is ultimately a soap opera, but this is some soap opera! What can you say about a film where the massage parlor employees decide to shut down an extortion racket by giving a group rubdown to a mobster which climaxes when the ladies suddenly whip out frying pans for a series of fatal head-whacks? Or when an effeminate man, after initially admitting during his massage that he’s been attracted to other men for the course of his sexual existence, abruptly announces his desire to see how the other 90% are getting it off after Maya gives him a few tugs on his tight shoulders? There is the prerequisite corrupt cop on the take (thank you, LAPD), the oversized doofus customer who bangs his forehead on a low-hanging chandelier, the married man bemoaning the disastrous state of his wedding ring imprisonment, and even a dastardly literary agent who pesters the virginal poet about a technical manual he is writing as a for-hire job. But the poet and Maya enjoy the ultimate high-kitsch moment when, after he is newly deflowered and she is newly liberated, they soak together in a bathroom decorated with so many candles that it is a minor miracle the smoke detector doesn’t go berserk.
And speaking of the somewhat overage virgin whom Maya inspires in so many way, Luciano Saber takes what might have been a thoroughly thankless role and turns into a wonderfully comic and warm-hearted character. Although it would seem he is physically ill-suited for the role (his buff physique looks at odds with his uber-geek character), Saber deftly makes this unlikely figure come to life. With nervous gestures and guffawing mannerisms that may recall the bashful buzzard from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, the character is comical without being idiotic. Coupled with the gifted Kerry Liu as Maya, the actors bring a genuine sweetness and humanity to the proceedings.
For all the camp fun, “Soap Girl” is noteworthy for some of the most strikingly beautiful cinematography around. Polish-Isræli cinematographer Henryk Tzvi Cymerman captures stunning imagery throughout the film, from the garish decor of the massage parlor halls to the Fauvist hues of a Pacific sunset. Cymerman’s camera takes what was obviously a low-budget effort and makes it (and its stars) look like a million bucks.
There has been some minor controversy (mostly from cranky people tacking up messages in online forums) about the depiction of Asian-American women in “Soap Girl.” The main problem is the film’s alleged continuation of the stereotype of the Asian female as a docile sexual plaything. Whoever made these comments clearly never saw “Soap Girl.” Yes, the film takes place in a somewhat dubious setting and, yes, babes here are made-up to look a bit on the slutty side. But the girls also come with equipped with 21st century brain-power, will-power and (yes) grrl-power. Rather than perpetuate stereotypes, “Soap Girl” and its take-charge/take-no-crap attitude that it happily demolishes stereotypes. If anything, the audience will find itself shouting “You go, Soap Girl!”