Shunzi is a man with all kinds of problems. A portly taxi driver whose outspoken views have lost him his cab, and forced to move back to his parents' dingy hutong courtyard home in Beijing after his wife leaves him for an actor, Shunzi is running out of options. A career promoting groceries wearing a belly-exposing, gold lamé waistcoat in a supermarket is hard to bear. So he decides to open a sex shop. Predictably enough, mayhem ensues.
Shunzi is the main protagonist in a witty new movie called Red Light Revolution, played with great pathos by Zhao Jun. But his lot is entirely credible, and his reaction to resolving his predicament well within the realms of the possible in today's freewheeling China. Under Chairman Mao, the country was famously prudish on matters sexual, but the opening up of society has led to an explosion in the sex industry. Sex shops are now on every corner, and Sam Voutas, the director of Red Light Revolution, says his comedy reflects the rapid pace of change in contemporary China.
"I hope I'm offering a side of China that people haven't seen before. It goes against what we might expect from a socialist country like China," said Voutas, an Australian film-maker and actor reared in Beijing.
"I was surprised to see how there are hundreds of sex shops now, in comparison to the 1980s. It goes hand-in-hand with China embracing commercialisation. In the 1990s there was one shop, and it was like a hospital," he says.
"Now there are chain stores and mom and pop [family-run] stores. I was drawn to the idea of why someone would open one, and wanted to investigate in a comedic way."
Common they may be, but it would be wrong to say that sex shops are considered normal. Much of the drama in the film focuses on the horrified reactions of Shunzi's neighbours and the local Communist Party street bailiff.
But there are also plenty of references to the fact that prudishness aside, clearly there is a lot of procreation going on in China – one of the running gags through the movie is the regular sound of squeaking mattress springs from Shunzi's ageing parents' room. But the film features no nude scenes – instead a chaste slide appears at particularly risqué moments with the message "This shot has been deleted".
Attitudes to sexuality in Beijing are changing. Young people, the generation of the 1990s, have a relaxed attitude to matters sexual similar to that other teenagers in Asia have. There is greater tolerance, even at official level, though the law is far from liberal. In April this year, a computer scientist in Nanjing was jailed for three and a half years on group sex charges for organising a swingers' party.
Voutas, who made the movie with his partner-producer Melanie Ansley, said they had "material support" from a sex-toy company who gave them all the marital aids they needed.
"It was a bit awkward because we had a lot of stock," he said. The Beijing of Red Light Revolution is full of life and ribald humour, and Voutas hopes that his movie will pass the censors, although they can be pretty rigorous when it comes to depictions of China that don't tally with the leadership's vision of a "harmonious society".
Actress Tang Wei was blacklisted for two years for her role in Ang Lee's steamy Lust, Caution. All of this while China is the world's largest producer of sex toys. That double standard means that the film may not make the multiplexes at home. "We're still in the process of trying to get approval," says Voutas, "and it would be a great bonus to get a mainland Chinese release."
Even if he does have to make cuts, though, the spirit of the film will not be altered. After all, as Voutas says, there are 1.3 billion people in China. They had to come from somewhere.
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