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Sex & the city

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Sam Voutas' festival film Red Light Revolution looks behind the red lights and into the sexshops. Kelly Chung Dawson reports.

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Since China's first sex shop opened in 1993, over 2,000 similar stores have opened in Beijingalone. Attitudes toward sex in Chinese society and media have changed since then, but notthat much, says Australian-born screenwriter and director Sam Voutas.

Promoting his 2010 film Red Light Revolution, which premiered in New York at the Friars ClubComedy Festival on Oct 16, Voutas speaks about the taboo of sex shops.

"I've lived in China on and off for over 15 years, and one of the biggest changes at the streetlevel has been this sudden emergence of sex shops," he says. "Back when they first opened inthe 90s, it was like going to the pharmacy, with the employees wearing clinical white coats!That's all really changed with the growth in the Chinese economy, because the entrepreneurhas become a big part of city life. For many people, it's quite a risk-averse industry to enter; thecost is quite low and the returns are good."

Indeed, 70 percent of the world's sex toys are made in China; 10,000 sex toy companies are based in the country, and billions ofcondoms are made in China each year.

The number of feature films about China's sex toy and sex shopindustry? One, according to Voutas. That film is Red LightRevolution, about a down-on-his-luck unemployed taxi driver whoopens a sex shop in a Beijing hutong, or alley.

Shunzi (played by Zhao Jun), jobless and single, goes into businesswith a friend and along the way, is helped by a cast of charactersfamiliar to those who have spent any time in the working-classareas of Beijing, Voutas says.

The film also stars Tess Liu (The Karate Kid), Vivid Wang, TianHuimin (Mao's Last Dancer), Ji Qing (Gasp), Jiang Xiduo andJapanese actor Masanobu Otsuka (City of Life and Death).

Liu, who plays Shunzi's business partner and friend, grew upbelieving that sex shops were dirty and unsafe. To this day, shehas never gone into one, she says with a laugh. In other interviews,Voutas has said that Liu did not tell her family about the subjectmatter of the film. The main characters in the movie also strugglewith telling their loved ones about what business they are in.

For the movie, the filmmakers built a fake sex shop set, using "atruckload" of donated sex toys from a Chinese company in returnfor the free publicity the film would provide the products.

Even though public attitudes online and among the youngergeneration has changed quite a lot, sex is still not openly discussedin most movies, or in the media, Voutas says.

"It's definitely still a big taboo, both in the media and on a personallevel," he says. "People go to sex shops at night time. But I think it'sgood to have sex shops whether that's in China or in the UnitedStates; it's very healthy. In China there's also a feeling that to havethese shops keeps things in proper balance."

But on set, the props kept disappearing, he says with a laugh at the panel discussion followingthe screening in New York. In fact, sex toys and marital aids have been used in China sinceimperial times, he says.

In January, the film will have a theatrical release in the United Kingdom, and may go limited inCanada and Singapore, Voutas says. It has also played at other film festivals in the US. Voutasis currently in talks with the Chinese equivalents of YouTube, in the hope of having it releasedin China around the Lunar New Year, when viewer numbers are highest.

Working with his partner-producer Melanie Ansley and Chinese filmmaker Wang Yifan, on alimited budget, the film faces a stricter rating system than in Hollywood.

In China, films must be appropriate for all ages to screen in cinemas, so after struggling withthe bureaucracy of the Chinese film industry (a subject that is handled with humor in the film)the movie was filmed without permits.

Although the comedy is Beijing-based, Voutas says that it was a conscious decision to give thefilm a Western tone.

"The storyline had a very Western type arc to it, and the jokes are quite Western as well," hesays. "As for the music, we used independent bands from all around China who play rock 'n'roll."

The result is a film that will charm Western audiences, but Chinese audiences too will recognizea rapidly changing world of their own to giggle about.
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