Bright Lights Film Journal

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story: A Documentary

Liberated porn queen or psychological wreck? You be the judge.

In a demimonde as duplicitous as the porn world, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that some of its players lead double lives. The fantasy of the princess-whore is a common one in the culture (think Belle de Jour), and the Internet abounds with websites by lap dancers and porn stars who are also artists or academics. In the latter category falls Annabel Chong, pioneer of the 251-man gangbang, who is really Grace Quek, a USC graduate who spends as much time ruminating on questions of gender and sexuality as she does getting laid en masse on camera. Quek/Chong is the subject of her boyfriend Gough Lewis’s intense, disturbing documentary, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. As in many such split identities, the lines between the two get blurry indeed. At one point she says — and we believe — “I don’t even know who Annabel Chong is.”

In limning her story, Lewis takes the viewer into all the worlds that have touched her, for better or worse. These include the porn industry; her native Singapore with its rigid conservative culture; academia; and, in a distorted mirror-image of the event that would establish her as a porn superstar, a London subway where she was gang-raped at age 21.

Her porn titles are typical of the genre with one exception: Depraved Fantasies 3, More Dirty Debutantes #37. The exception is her pioneering World’s Biggest Gang Bang 1, in which she has sex with 251 guys, an event presided over by pornmeisters John Bowen and Ron Jeremy. The industry’s attraction to Quek is clear — she’s very pretty, naïve-looking, agreeable, a kind of Asian child bride — and the lure of defiling this sweet image is clearly the driving force. Her attraction to porn, and extreme porn at that, is discussed at length by herself and others. A classmate says she did it because she was irritated by the “reverse patriarchy” of a “feminist theory class” that she felt was stifling female sexuality. Quek says she wants “to shake people up from all these stereotypes of women as sex objects,” to “be a stud.” She has a missionary’s zeal, at least in her words: “I’m at the age where I think I can change something.”

Cracks in this scenario emerge quickly. It’s hard, for example, to reconcile her forced smiles and screams of passion after the 50th, 100th, or 250th slobbering guy with body language that says she’s pretty much a psychological wreck. Quek’s vaunted search for sexual liberation seems to be covering a search for community and family. Scenes of her sidling up to Jeremy, Bowen, and others in the porn industry as if they cared about her are undercut by interviews in which it’s clear that she’s been totally commodified in their minds — Bowen doesn’t even pay her for the gangbang video that he himself calls the best-selling video in porn history. Once her record of 251 guys is eclipsed, she’s dismissed as “all washed up,” and she ends up haggling with second-rate pornmeisters over a few hundred bucks.

“I’m willing to take the consequences of what I do,” she says, referring to risks — psychic and physical — involved in getting laid by hundreds of men in the ten-hour shooting of The World’s Biggest Gang Bang. What she doesn’t know that the film reveals is that many of the men weren’t even given an HIV test, in spite of assurances to the contrary. Quek’s trusting nature is constantly pummeled, and her fantasy of the porn world as a loving community rather than a cutthroat business is also dashed, though she resists admitting it. Outside the line of fat, aging geeks with ponytails who make up her gang-bang lovers and directors, she’s reviled. More uptown porn stars who make “erotica” write her off as “sleazy” and “bad for the industry.” Some of the pain she feels is internalized, and in a creepy scene she cuts bloody stripes in her arm “to let the pain inside out.” (Reports from the set say that director Lewis joined her in this ritual.)

Most problematic for Quek is the discovery by family and friends of what the “good little girl” from Singapore who could write, draw, and play the piano is really up to. She has the strength of her convictions in telling a friend that she’s “the biggest porn star in America,” but the news echoes through the Singapore community and devastates her relationship with her mother. Her most wrenching moments are those with this good-natured, traditional woman, who’s traumatized by the news when it comes from her hysterical daughter. This is where the gulf between her theorizing about sexual liberation and her desperate need for a loving family and community is at its widest.

The film is not entirely grim. There are sweet moments between Quek and her best friend, a drag queen named Alan. She’s playful and seemingly at peace when they dress up in drag together and she describes how he helped her kick drugs. The simplicity of lunch in a Singapore food stall with her mother is another quiet moment of pleasure, far from the troublesome world of play for pay. Driving through London, she says, “Like every big city, it’s got an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness and desperation to it” — an equally apt description of Annabel Chong.