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Sauna on the Moon
Zou Peng 邹鹏
Sauna on the Moon

In and around Dongguang, in Guangdong Province in south China, the economy is racing forward, and the sex industry is trying hard to raise its game and upgrade and glamorise the experiences it offers along with it. Mr.Wu, the incongruously paternalistic and idealistic boss of Chang’e Sauna, and his hard-working employees seek to transform their somewhat outdated and faded establishment into a glamorous modern “entertainment kingdom” and thereby restore its fortunes. Apart from being the name of the sauna/brothel, and the unmanned moon spaceship that China launched in Oct 2010, the film's Chinese title Chang’e refers to The Lady in the Moon, a goddess from Chinese mythology who endows her worshippers with great beauty. There are many myths about Chang’e, but since antiquity most involve tales of how she was expelled from Heaven with her husband, Houyi, who shot the nine suns out of the sky. They also involve her consuming alchemical drugs and getting so high she bounces up to the moon. Once there she is trapped for eternity with the rabbit who is compounding the drugs of immortality. These are the themes of this film - entrapment, intoxication, and dreams.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London)


Sauna on the Moon is an ambitious, sprawling satire on the intimate connections between China's phenomenal recent economic growth and the equally prodigious growth of the sex industry, particularly in south China. Set in a 'sauna' in Dongguang, the 'capital' of the sex industry in southern China, Sauna on the Moon portrays the lives of a group of local sex workers using an extraordinary mix of quasi-documentary-style scenes, outrageous satirical comedy and surreal fantasy. Refused permission for public screening in China due to its highly sexualised subject-matter, costumes and decor, and no doubt also its somewhat irreverent depiction of the relations between the police, Party cadres, the local business elite and the sex industry, Sauna on the Moon has sharply divided opinion among Western film criticis and commentators. Some have described its portrayal of the lives of Chinese sex workers as sensitive and sympathetic, while others have denounced the film for glamorising prostitution, reinforcing male chauvinist perceptions of women as sex objects and presenting a wholly unrealistic, naive view of the frequently dangerous and degrading conditions under which most sex workers are compelled to live and work. Nevertheless, it offers a compelling portrait of the extremes to which commodification of the human body and sexuality has been taken by the development of capitalism in China the post-socialist, post-modern era, and as such may be compared with films like Zhang Wei's Factory Boss (2014), which highlights much the same kind of cynical exploitation and commodification of labour in a neighbouring city, albeit in a completely different setting and context.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)


The girls of the Chang'e 'sauna' managed by Li, who has a young son by a man who left her, include wannabe singer Xiao Meng from Sichuan province, and Pink. A friend of Li, Leizi, pimps for them. Wu's protector is businessman Lin, one of whose friends, Song, requests a virgin from him. Wu tells Lei to find one and the latter recruits factory girl Hou. However, when Hou runs away afterwards, Lei demands an extra RMB 100,000 (US$15,000) to recompense his investment in her, and Lin has him arrested by the police.

In the end, Wu manages to relaunch his ramshackle business while some of the girls leave the place. But for the ones ho stay, everything will remain the same in Wu’s brothel, an island detached from the harsh reality of factory sweat-shops and piece work.

The movie has many hilarious moments, with the ex-prostitute Li running a training course where she teaches the girls how to moan and fake orgasms and Mr. Wu waltzes with a middle-aged matron who runs a sex-toy shop while his assistant chooses some dildos and checks their batteries. The relationship between Mr. Wu and his girls imparts a tone of warmth to the whole movie. His fatherly concern and caring towards the girls manifests itself in many absurdly humorous scenes, like the one in which he buys sadomasochist accessories for the girls to boost their business. He then shows the dolled-up girls how to use them while he himself tries on a nice piece of gag.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London)


Born in north-east China, Zou Peng now moves way down south to Guangdong for his second feature, in most respects the polar opposite of his first, A North Chinese Girl (Dongbei dongbei, 2009) which is set in his hometown of Harbin. Where North Chinese Girl was dark, wintry and self-consciously arty in style, Sauna is bright, sweaty and sassy, reflecting its setting in the southern, Cantonese-dominated melting-pot. Aided by master cinematographer Yu Lik-wai (Jia Zhangke’s regular director of photography) he offers a stylised and dreamlike take on the artificial universe of the brothel, with his seamily-coloured, saturated photography of interiors. A smoothly flowing, impressionistic poem about the mundane everyday life of a brothel, together with sharp ironies about the mindset of the entrepreneurs of the new China, subtly photographed with a mildly rippling musical score.

Audiences tend to be sharply divided on this film. In a Q & A with the producer, Chen Zhiheng 陈挚恒, Chen claimed that they were ‘telling it as it is’, and from the women’s point of view. Certainly we get to know the characters of the women, and the ways in which they are following their dreams which prevents them from becoming the ‘commodified bodies’ that they arguably represent. But this is no feminist film. Rather, it indulges the fantasies of the heterosexual men which it simultaneously lampoons, especially in the poolside girly promenade through a long pink tunnel….. Compare Xu Tong’s Wheat Harvest, a hardcore documentary about prostitutes on the semi-rural fringe of Beijing.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London)

  • Is it wrong to sell your body for money?
  • Should prostitution be illegal?
  • How are/should prostitutes be protected?
  • Is this a feminist film?
  • Is the film exploitative of women?
  • How do myths and legends structure our everyday life?
  • What does a non-Chinese audience miss in this film?
  • Do we learn anything about sexual health in China from the film?
  • What does this film tell us about female agency in the sex business?