Sex: Annabel's never-ending story

The straight story of a student turned porn star? Where Annabel Chong's concerned, nothing is quite as it seems
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The Independent Culture

Gough Lewis's documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story charts the fortunes of a University of Southern California student's career in the porn industry. Annabel aka Grace Quek - most famous for her record-setting 251-man gang bang - is a fetching muddle of crazy paving teeth and little boy limbs. In the film, she insists that what she does is about control, but what begins as a sunny study soon grows fuzzy; we discover how often she's been ripped off by directors and producers; see a weeping Grace promising to restore her Singaporean parents' dignity, watch her cut herself with a razor and learn she was gang-raped as an 18-year-old in London.

If Grace begins as a la-la land version of Pinocchio - invisible strings always tugging her game smile too tight - by the end she's sagged into real, fleshy life, warm enough to touch.

It's a wonderful film, which last year won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but director Gough Lewis (a 34-year-old, dyslexic ex-punk, Redding-born and Vancouver-bred), isn't in town to promote it. Grace is and the PRs are full of tales about why: Grace is suing Gough, Grace is suing the producers. I assume they're wild tales, designed to get me interested. But when I'm introduced to Grace - severely anxious in black, with a maternal-looking blonde who seems unwilling to leave us alone together - I'm not so sure.

Once the blonde (executive producer Suzanne Bowers Whitten) has been reassured I'm a force for good and not evil, I tell Grace - whose teeth, I notice, have been capped - how much I enjoyed the film and her nod is perfunctory, even impatient. "Thanks" she says, in a peculiar accent, part strangulated Lloyd Grossman, part flip Gregg Araki teen, "I call it Sex: the Gough Lewis Story as told through Annabel Chong."

To set the record straight, Grace is now making a documentary about being the subject of a documentary, in which, to add to the confusion, Gough Lewis will appear ("he's not the most articulate guy in the world, but he managed to come across"). In case you hadn't guessed, the two are not best friends. Grace, gobbling down cigarettes like sweeties, gives a nervous little titter: "He recently went on-line and called me the biggest whore in the world."

Intrigued, I settle down to listen to the Annabel Chong Story, Part II. It turns out Grace and Gough were having a relationship while the film was being made (they were together for about a year), which he chose to conceal. "He really believes in cinéma-vérité," says Grace witheringly. "He thought if people knew it would compromise his quote unquote objective status." She thought it was all too relevant. "There's this bit in the film where I cut myself, but he cut himself too. It was the day we broke up, we were in so much pain and we used the camera - I think of it as our camera - to record it all. He just dropped this scene in there without showing he was complicit."

She was also uneasy about the way Gough orchestrated the reconstruction of the rape. "He wanted me to have this big emotional breakdown when we went back to the site. I took a few photos, big deal, but he kept trying to provoke me, bringing up stuff about our relationship. I was like 'stop it, you're just trying to get your money shot'."

Grace feels the connection between the gang rape and the gang-bang video was crude psychology, but what really seems to bother her is Gough's representation of her as a victim. Her own feminism is very much of the tough-cookie, Camille Paglia variety. "These women in gender studies," she says, "try to move girls into a 'female supportive environment'. But that's not the real world." Having recently become a porn director/producer herself, she's capable of talking as brutally as the beer-bellied merchants we see in the film. Thus she'll note, without a blush, that since her movies target a college audience she has to cast "young, wholesome" girls ("I keep the jaded, hard-looking girls for the bondage videos").

The idea that Sex: the Annabel Chong Story might make us feel sorry for her, might make us think she's not so tough, clearly rankles. What she'd rather do is point out Gough's weakness. She says of her director-lover that he was a deeply unhappy person and extremely possessive. "The idea that I was an adult film star, that I used to have sex on video with other men, drove him crazy. Even my past lovers, whether male or female, drove him crazy, the mere thought of them."

She says too how she could never have children with him, "because Gough has too many substance-related problems for me to deal with". She rather demurely mimes knocking back pint after pint. She says the last time she saw him, in Vancouver, he "didn't look very healthy, he wasn't very forthcoming in talking to people, but at least he was alive".

You have to suppress a smile as she adds, "It just saddens me that Gough continues to be so bitter about the break-up, I tend to let things go."

Grace, the happy, post-modern camper, Gough the suicidal dork... As she rattles on, I remember a scene from the film where Grace's mother boasts that as a little girl her daughter never cried, but would rush around wiping away the tears of others. It strikes me that Grace and Gough have a lot in common, far happier to experience grief through others than first hand.

Grace accepts this theory very sweetly. "I think the similarities between Grace and Gough go all the way through the film. When I came out to my mother about my adult film career he came out to his mother about his drug use and she helped him back on the road to recovery. And I talk about restoring my parents' dignity. Well, he's trying to restore his mother's dignity by making this film."

So what went wrong? Grace shrugs. "We had to be together so much, there was no healing time. And then there was all the time we had to spend together at the film festivals." According to Grace, at Sundance Lewis "had emotional difficulty dealing with fame. He went on a bender and didn't show up for interviews". She says she replaced him against her will, but that he then turned around and blamed her "for taking away his publicity. It's been a point of contention ever since". Hence the biggest whore insult: "He meant a publicity whore."

And what about rumour that she's suing Gough? Grace's eyes flutter - she looks up and away, then down. Finally she says: "Oh, oh, it's nothing really, it's just boring stuff to do with accounting. She becomes furiously interested in stubbing out a dead cigarette in the ashtray. "You know what, you should talk to Suzanne about this."

The subject of men and money is obviously a raw issue for Grace. So off I go to talk to Suzanne, who turns out to be, well, worthy of her own documentary. While explaining the legal "entanglement", ("Grace will get paid for being in the film, somewhere down the line") she notes, by the by, that Gough is no longer really involved because he's allowed himself to be bought out of the film by a couple in Canada.

This tale, it seems, has one more twist. What made Gough do it? Suzanne looks pained. "We knewGough before Grace but... Gough didn't know how to handle publicity very well. At Sundance we wanted to do some rehearsals with him but he said, 'Don't worry, I'm very articulate', and he wasn't. He told one bunch of journalists, 'there are 24 different versions of this film, but I think we got the right one, don't you?'" I can't really see the problem with this, but Suzanne puts her head in her hands. "You just don't say things like that. There was a real buzz in Sundance about the film, but there was also a buzz that he was a jerk."

Suzanne is on a roll. She says, raising her eyes heavenward, that, of course, Sex: the Annabel Chong Story is not "great film-making. "He's a first-time film-maker and we're first-time producers, what do you expect?" She thinks he had the nous to realise how interesting Grace was, but then got jealous. "Grace is so good with people we decided we'd rather have her do the publicity. I mean, who would you rather talk to, him or her? She's the perfect promoter for this film."

Suzanne and her husband are funding Grace's sequel ("we probably won't go for a theatrical release, we're thinking straight to video"). "And Gough's got his own projects." "Well," she corrects herself, a contented sigh escaping her lips, "he says he's got other projects."

It's all too good to be true - this latest instalment in the Annabel Chong/Gough Lewis story. A director deposed from his own throne, by the woman he made his subject. Art-house Siamese twins, unable to separate without causing damage. And a fistful of producers desperate for dollars. I'd demand a camera, if I didn't recognise the symptoms of documentary-itis, the belief that an audience's willingness to tune in is as inexhaustible as an individual's willingness to be larger than life.

'Sex: The Annabel Chong Story' is released 21 April

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