Li Jan is a young woman from China who arrives in Hong Kong on a 90-day tourist visa. But during her time, she doesn’t plan on visiting the sights and sounds of the city. Instead, she plans on working — and she decides to earn the most amount of money that she can by working in underground motels.
When she arrives, she wants to make a phone call, but the phone booth is broken. As she is drawn into her temporary new life, guided by a “groom” named Tat, she keeps trying to make her call. But as she delves deeper into the netherworld of Hong Kong, it becomes seemingly harder to reach out.
Writer-director Timothy Yeung’s powerful short drama — also co-written by Yinuo Wang, who stars in the main role — manages to combine one young girl’s quiet yet harrowing emotional journey with a skillfully subtle yet memorable portrayal of a hidden world.
The storytelling has an almost documentary-like attention to detail, aided by an expressionistic usage of murky, lurid lighting and cinematography. The noirish yet strangely captivating camera shots often capture the cramped, cluttered rooms and hallways of Li Jan’s new workplace or the smeared, oily-looking back alleys she and her minder walk to get from one hotel to another. There’s little sense of Hong Kong as a city; instead, we’re dropped like Li Jan into one of the hidden worlds hiding in plain sight.
Though it’s very matter-of-fact about the underground and its surprisingly mundane aspects, the film avoids tawdriness by paying close attention to the characters and their interactions with one another. The performances of the main cast are beautifully nuanced and resolutely human, revealing layers of conflict and longing. These are people overwhelmed by what they’re doing, yet do offer flickers of humanity, connection and understanding with one another. But never too much, however: the business of buying and selling women’s bodies requires a certain level of detachment from everyone involved.
That detachment forms the heart of the emotional arc in “90 Days,” delineated with heartbreaking precision through excellent writing, directing and acting all around. The final moments of the film — from the cigarette that Li Jan asks for to the bright tone she forces in her voice when she finally gets to make her phone call — are completely subtle in scale as gestures, yet they’re momentous in emotion. The story ends on the first night of Li Jan’s 90-day stay. Yet the film’s triumph is leaving viewers to wonder just how those three months will affect her long after they’re over.