Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beijing Hua and Blow-up Sex Dolls: Sam Voutas’ "Red Light Revolution"

Shunzi (Zhao Jun) and Lili (Vivid Wang) in Sam Voutas' "sex shop comedy" shot entirely in Beijing, Red Light Revolution.

“Sex. Shagging. Making love. Whatever you want to call it, everyone does it. But no-one does it more than us Chinese…”

So begins Sam Voutas’ Red Light Revolution (Hong deng meng), billed as China’s first “sex shop comedy.” I was at The Beijinger when Sam’s film started doing the rounds in Beijing, and I have to admit I was initially a little dubious about the film. A Chinese sex comedy written and directed by a laowai? What were the chances of it being any good? Shortly before I left Beijing earlier this year I got to meet Sam – a fellow Australian – and he gave me a copy, which I perused once I was back in Melbourne. And I must concede, whatever the chances against it, Sam has produced a film that’s not only very funny, but also manages to really capture the flavour of life in China’s capital.

Zhao Jun plays the hapless cabbie Shunzi, who in one nightmare day loses his job after a fight with his boss, and his wife after she runs off with a foppish thespian. Reduced to living with his parents in their cramped courtyard home, a chance meeting with an old school friend leads to him teaming up with Lili (played by the gorgeous Vivid Wang) and opening one of the sex shops that these days can be found on almost every street in Beijing.

The film’s rapid-fire style is established in the opening scenes, when Shunzi calls his wife to say he’s been fired. Cut to Shunzi’s television going out the window.
“You’re a lousy cab driver!” she yells after it, as the crestfallen Shunzi arrives to find his shattered set on the pavement.
“Lousy? I know this town like the back of my hand!” Shunzi fires back.
“Good! Then you’ll know where to go to beg!” screams his wife.
Shunzi races upstairs to find his place already taken by a young actor. “I’ve played the emperor Puyi,” the young man declares. “More like his eunuch,” Shunzi replies disparagingly.

It’s in scenes like this that Red Light Revolution oozes with the bawdy humour and colourful turns of phrase that pepper Beijing hua (Beijing dialect), topped off with the rolling “rrrrs” that make the city’s lingo so distinctive. From Shunzi’s aging parents to a wizened neighbourhood patrolman, the film affectionately portrays a range of Beijing archetypes without ever feeling hackneyed or clichéd. The script’s local flavour is all the more remarkable given it was written by an Australian.

Sam also manages to include many amusing details of Beijing life, such as Shunzi’s attempts to navigate China’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and get a permit for his shop. After numerous calls we see his sidekick Lili filling out a form to apply for a form to get the permit. Which would be funny if it wasn’t so spot on!

Shunzi (Zhao Jun) introduced to sex shop merchandise by an old school friend (Jiang Xiduo).

From the shots of ginormous flyovers to dusty grey hutong, Red Light Revolution captures the sites and sense of Beijing so evocatively it left me feeling quite homesick for the place. The soundtrack also comprises a series of catchy tunes by a range of Beijing bands. If I had any criticism, it would be that the story does flag a little in the final 20 minutes. But with a total running time of just 90 minutes, Red Light Revolution never outstays its welcome.

The film has played at numerous festivals in the U.S., and in September this year it screened at the Singapore International Film Festival. Alas, Australian festivals have proved resistant and as far as I know the film has yet to screen in Voutas’ home country. Which is surprising given the amount of interest there is in China in Australia, and Sam’s Australian connection. I’ll be interviewing the director next week for Metro magazine, so I’ll post some choice quotes from our chat here at Screening China. In the meantime, if you want a chuckle and a dose of authentic Beijing street life, ditch the overblown historical epics and sanitized dramas of the Chinese studios, and check out Red Light Revolution.


  1. Thanks for this review - I managed to catch the last screening here in Shanghai and thoroughly enjoyed the film!

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