DVD Review: Dirty, Pretty Things

Dirty Pretty Things DVD

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Who are the Dirty, Pretty Things? Not some 70s rock combo! One character in this film, “Sneaky” or Juan says “The hotel business is about strangers [they] come in the night and do dirty things…we make it pretty again”. Or perhaps when the film’s hero Okwe answers the question “How come I’ve never seen you before?” with “We are the people you do not see. We drive your cars, clean your rooms and suck your cocks” he is describing the true dirty, pretty things.

This film is about the life of illegal immigrants in London – how it seems that these immigrants all wish to get to New York a city portrayed in mythical terms. In contrast London is variously described as a “shit, dustbin city”; “a weird city”; “colder than Moscow”; where in one of its myriad bed sits “nothing works” and yet “everything here is connected to everything else” – almost a metaphor for London itself perhaps (though London does work and the ‘black’ economy thrives). There is not much joy depicted in this “vibrant” city – most of the external camera shots are of clogged roads and crowded markets; sweat shops and urban grime.
Everything is certainly connected to everything else. Okwe is a man, a doctor, fleeing from a brutal regime in Nigeria. If he is to be believed then he is the archetypal genuine asylum-seeker. Though like the rest he has simply dropped into the detritus of London life and its underworld service industry. Okwe is like a Christ figure, tending to the needs of the immigrant community both new and established (for instance treating his fellow taxi drivers who have caught ‘the clap’). He works at the front office of a well-to-do hotel at night and drives taxis in the day. Whilst working at the hotel he discovers the racket in prostitution (dirty, pretty things?) and the more sinister racket of illegal organ transplanting. This film is graphic and dirty. Okwe is a sensitive, cultured professional man who, during one scene, we see fishing out a bloodied organ from a toilet basin.

The main plots of the film are how Okwe resists being blackmailed by ‘Sneaky’ to become part of the illegal organ trade and how a relationship develops between him and the Turkish girl Senay. Senay is played by Audrey Tatou erstwhile lead in Amelie a French film that captured the hearts of the English a few years back. What a contrast. Whereas Amelie is a film that espouses a light-hearted, nostalgic feel-good sense of Frenchness – in Dirty, Pretty Things Senay is an illegal immigrant escaping Turkey because “I do not want to live like my mother”.
There are some interesting remarks about Englishness that thread through the film – the doorman of the hotel Ivan says to Okwe “You start dressing like an Englishman” and later it is said of a man who has had a kidney removed (and may die) “He is English now…he swapped his inside for a passport”. And later in the film there is an exchange between Guo Yi (“I am a certified refugee”) and Okwe where Guo Yi says in response to Okwe’s disbelief that the illegal organ trade is going on, “You think it doesn’t happen because the Queen doesn’t approve?”
There is indeed much emphasis on changing identity. Senay wants to have a passport where she is Italian and these counterfeit passports are produced by Lebanese…“Guys who made this [a French passport] are the best in London.”

The white people in the film are depicted as bad (the immigration officers especially, also the white ‘punter’ who attacks Juliette the prostitute) or seem remote (Irish doctor in hospital; man who collects organs). There is also an amusing (and interesting) exchange between Okwe and Juliette in the hotel. Juliette (black) says, “You’ve come from somewhere with lions? I like lions…” and later asks, “So have you ever seen a lion?” Okwe replying, “On TV.” There is also an interesting scene where Guo Yi dresses a corpse in traditional Chinese fashion. He wonders why there is no family to do this and says, “Perhaps he came from the back of a truck”.
Some characters deliberately misuse ideas of identity or play with it, for instance when Senay is being coerced by her Asian sweat shop boss into gratifying him sexually: “They [the authorities] will put you in prison and here [London/Britain] they mix men and women and you will be raped every night.”
Senay to Juliette (the prostitute): “Before I was a virgin.”
Juliette: “Jesus!”
Senay: “Mohammed!”
When Senay is at one of her lowest moments, she puts on Turkish music and dances in Turkish fashion – it as if she can only find peace and security in her deep identity.

The film is intense and yet fast-paced and thrilling. I won’t give away the end but it’s neatly done and satisfying. In one of the last scenes Senay says to Okwe, “Always we must hide” and when Okwe calls his daughter he says, “I’m coming home”.
There is a real sense of ingenuity in the community that lives by its wits ever aware of the danger of arrest and deportation. There is a feeling I got as if I were watching a war film – perhaps with the ethnic edge of the war in Bosnia and ex-Yugoslavia or even an old English film of POWs escaping through occupied territory.
The organ trade is callously depicted as “[based] on happiness. Everyone is happy”. This is not a multi-cultural dream but rather a sordid nightmare where even so the nobility of Okwe and the faith of Senay remain. New York is the city that offers the ultimate freedom (from identity?) and London is the necessary hell to escape. Whether ‘going on’ or ‘returning’ will give the characters what they are seeking is debatable. The clever racketeers, the one’s who know how to play the system will exist very nicely in any community – but in a community hidden from view their power is further increased and corrupted.

I urge all readers of this magazine to watch Dirty Pretty Things then perhaps you can decide who these creatures really are.
Tim Bragg

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