As a documentary filmmaker, Austrian director Michael Glawogger isn’t interested in advocacy or journalistic exposé, and while he allows some scenes to unfold before the camera, he isn’t of the strict fly-on-the-wall vérité school, either. Following up 2005’s Workingman’s Death, his stunning tour through five of the world’s most hazardous labor sites, Whores’ Glory similarly explores a triptych of poverty-ravaged prostitution sites, spending equal time in a Bangkok brothel, the red-light district in Bangladesh, and a complex of bars and single-room barracks called “The Zone” in Reynosa, Mexico. Documentary purists will find plenty to grouse about here: The gorgeously stylized photography, which captures each setting with color-saturated vividness; the eclectic soundtrack, with songs by P.J. Harvey, Antony And The Johnsons, and others; and a detached style that’s free of predigested conclusions. But the film’s break from the usual earnest, stat-filled exposé is a large part of its appeal, and Glawogger’s attention to color and composition don’t diminish the quality of the testimony or dip into raw exploitation.
The last of a “globalization trilogy”—1998’s Megacities and the aforementioned Workingman’s Death are the others—Whores’ Glory takes a keen interest in the everyday nature of prostitution, particularly the point of sale between prostitute and client. The profession looks grimmer with each successive location. At “The Fish Tank” in Bangkok, the women sit along platforms behind a long pane of glass—hence the name—while their numbers are called like rounds in a bingo parlor. It’s a dehumanizing cattle call, but at least they have the freedom to clock out at the end of the night. In the “City Of Joy” red-light district of Faridpur, Bangladesh, Glawogger shows often clearly underage girls working in indentured servitude, answering to a madam who will brutalize them for a slow night. Incredibly, conditions are worse in “The Zone,” a cartel-owned circle of hell so squalid that women pray to Lady Death for deliverance.
The insights into a prostitute’s life are expected—the concerns about debt, about growing older, about the absence of any other options—but they’re devastating nonetheless, like a barely pubescent girl in Bangladesh who confesses her suffering as if it were a closely guarded secret, or a Mexican hooker who turns tricks to buy the crack that makes turning tricks endurable. (There’s also occasional comic relief, like a retired woman who claims to have served 40 johns a day at her peak, and has the graphic stories to prove it.) Glawogger studiously avoids explicitness until he gets to Mexico, where he finally goes past the bartering stage and behind closed doors as business is conducted. Pleasure isn’t part of the transaction.