Too Much Heaven, Part Three: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society
This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days. Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.
A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.
Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.
In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.
Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart
An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.
Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.
Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.
Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”
Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.
Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.
Echoes of the Rainbow
A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.
The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.
Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.
Mr. and Mrs. Incredible
A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.
Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.
Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).
Hong Kong Cinema
Sept. 23-25, 2011
San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema
1746 Post Street, San Francisco