catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 1 :: 2007.01.12 — 2007.01.26


Reviving Messalina

Annabel Chong, for those of you who don't keep up with the latest porn stars, is known for doing the largest gang bang in porn history—251 sex acts in 10 hours.  At least, that was the record until it was broken by Jasmin St. Clair in The World's Biggest Gang Bang II.  Though by all accounts Annabel Chong went the distance with much more grace and style, she still suffers the stigma by some porn industry purists of highlighting what's ugly about porn and endures the general societal scorn that accompanies her trade.  It must be Annabel's perseverance in the face of established social mores and her faithful service to her own unique "artistic" vision that makes Annabel Chong worth celebrating in America because someone decided Annabel's story should be told in the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.   

Don't get me wrong.  A story about Annabel Chong is certainly worth telling.   Many issues about sex, art, family, gender and business in America arise as we follow Annabel Chong through several years of her life in and out of the porn industry.  The personal interviews and persuasive visual evidence scandalously suggest the distinction between prostitution and pornography might depend only on whether or not a camera is involved.  The fact that Annabel Chong—Grace Quek is her given name—has a Masters degree at the University of Southern California in art and gender studies challenges the notion that pornography can only be "low-brow".  Her "world's biggest gang bang" concept has its roots in Roman history.  Messalina, wife of emperor Claudius, supposedly challenged a notorious Roman prostitute to an all-night sex competition.  Quek thought such a scenario would be an excellent exercise for Annabel Chong to revisit, thus undermining our culture's myths about male sexuality.  As a woman, Chong challenges the male "stud" to a sexual dual of sorts, attempting to promote a sense of female power.

The documentary tempers Annabel Chong's exploits by pitting them against the expectations of Quek's family and friends.  Quek's mother and father are good Protestant Christians living in Singapore who are not aware of what their daughter is doing in the United States.  When Quek finally tells her mother, the tears between the two reveal a painful tension underlying this porn star's life.  But director Gough Lewis is not making one of those faux revenge reality shows that starts off shocking and angering us with the characters' immoral actions only to satisfy us with evidence that the characters have finally been taught a lesson because of their immoral behavior.  When Chong comes out of the HIV testing facility, her test results are negative.  And the film ends with Quek returning victoriously to the porn industry after some soul searching about whether or not she is still really Annabel Chong.

Annabel Chong is the hero of this documentary because despite many personal and social challenges, she continues to pursue her own artistic vision.  She is the ultimate female stud—the one who remains standing when the smoke has cleared.  She does not let her parents or those of her parents' generation define who she is.  Annabel Chong remains faithful to herself. 

In her own documentary about being a documentary film subject, Grace Quek answers a question about whether or not she considers herself a role model.   "I just want to live my life right," she says.  "I want to be accountable to myself…I'm still in the process of trying to discover who I am, what I want to do, and I am by no means a finished product."  This answer does not suggest she is ashamed of what she has done, of course.  She merely wants to avoid replacing someone's own inner voice for how they should live their lives.  Quek's warning against following role models does not contradict the hero status of Annabel Chong in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.  Chong is a different kind of hero than the role models of previous times.  She is the guide to the future man, the one spoken of in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Perhaps she is yet another unfortunate fulfillment of Nietzsche's prophecies in our time.  According to the documentary, societal traditions continue to harness the freedom of the individual, but Annabel Chong fights the good fight and Annabel Chong will overcome.

Despite the consistency of the message and the complex issues that were adeptly communicated in Gough Lewis' documentary, I would have liked to see a more truthful portrayal of the tension between Quek's individual pursuits and the expectations of her parents, friends and teachers.  Quek's heroic pronouncements about female power and individual freedom seem to ignore the reality that she does not belong only to herself.  Her responsibilities to her parents, friends and society remain no matter how much she tries to break free from them.  Lewis seems to hint at this, but his emotional access to family members and friends seems limited.  Also, Lewis does not adequately pursue the obvious connection between a gang rape Quek experienced as a student in London and her later desire to set the power of female sexuality against that of men in her art and porn projects. 

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story reveals the tension between Nietzsche's vision and God's plan for responsible human life…but only for those who have eyes to see.  I suppose if all documentaries are just subjective fictional interpretations, I couldn't fault Gough Lewis for only telling his side of the story.  But the director shirks his responsibility if his overall message does not disclose the full truth of Grace Quek's struggle. 

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