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Friday, March 23, 2001

'THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY'

Ins and outs of postfeminist theory


Annabel Chong may not be a household name, but her claim to fame is quick and to the point: This porno actress grabbed a world record in 1995 by shagging 251 men in just under 10 hours.

Annabel Chong in the documentary "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story"

Let's take a moment. Even in the extroverted world of porn stardom, this represents a coup, and suggests a driven personality, inflamed by alust for notoriety that knows no limits. The documentary film on her career -- "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" -- certainly has its salacious appeal, but it's also a fascinating character study, one of the more intellectually provocative and emotionally complex films you'll see this year.

First off, Annabel Chong (nee Grace Quek) is no bimbo, and a lot of people are going to have problems with that right off the bat. Why would an intelligent college girl with a happy childhood and supportive family in straitlaced Singapore choose to become a porn starlet?

Why indeed. Debut director Gough Lewis' documentary (like all good cinema) forces us to look beyond the stereotype, and see the myriad of complex and often contradictory impulses out of which this starlet was born.

How complex? Try this: One of Annabel's classmates from the University of Southern California claims that Annabel was "pissed off by a feminist theory class. She went off and did a porno just to prove a point." A rash and impulsive personality, yes, but also a product of her era: like the theorist Camille Paglia or the practioner Madonna, Chong is an extreme reaction to victim-politics and asexuality of academic feminism. She represents the position -- as she does in an Oxford University debate in the film -- that "It is every woman's right to express, flaunt or otherwise exploit her sexuality."

An admirable ideal. But as we see in Lewis' behind-the-scenes interviews, the exploitation of sex is much the same-old, same-old. The maker of "The World's Biggest Gang Bang" video, in which Annabel set her record, never paid her a penny, while his assurances that all the participants were tested for HIV turned out to be false. The question of whether it's possible to maintain personal control in an exploitative industry is a pointed one.

But while she claims to want to prove a point, it's also clear that Annabel harbors a streak of nymphomania. (College, as she puts it, "got boring because eventually I had f**ked everybody.")

Or does she? Although Annabel seeks to critique the stereotypes of porn actresses, she's not above adopting them as well: In "Sex" we see her in-character (on an episode of, what else, "The Jerry Springer Show"), flashing a sassy smile and some cleavage and cooing, "All those people wanting to have sex with me. . . . If that isn't an ego trip, I don't know what is."

"Sex" suggests that such ego-boosting may be some sort of necessary salve. We learn that it was only through modeling nude for an art class that Annabel became comfortable with her (then) rather ordinary looks. One of her teachers points out that "she tries to be extroverted, but isn't really," and it's a perceptive comment. One senses a powerful insecurity that has provoked an equally powerful countermeasure. She adopts a larger-than-life role, staving off self-doubt with extreme self-exposure.

As such, "Sex" is one of the most extreme explorations of artistic motivation you'll see this side of "Crumb." Annabel's fantasies may not be politically correct, but they are hers, and who is to say she shouldn't act on them if she so desires?

See the film and decide for yourself.

"Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" opens March 24 at Roppongi's Haiyuza Talkie-Night.


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