Hong Kong Digital
is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- a film
reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author of The Hong
Five Discs From Ying E Chi Films
The Hong Kong film industry is easily one of the most commercially-oriented around and casual moviegoers in the West can be forgiven for not even knowing that there are independent filmmakers practicing their craft in the SAR. Sure, Fruit Chan's MADE IN HONG KONG was a Cinderella story that made headlines but there are actually a number of other talented writers and directors operating under the radar in HK and much of their work is well worth seeing. The problems facing these artists are all-too-familiar: money and distribution. Ying E Chi Films was formed in 1997 to help with the promotion and distribution of independent productions and the group receives some financial assistance from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. In addition to theatrical screenings, Ying E Chi offers a number of titles on VCD and is now branching out into DVD as well.
In this issue of Hong Kong Digital, I'll be looking at four
Ying E Chi VCDs and one DVD. Each disc can be purchased from the company
through their website (http://www.yec.com/).
They are located at:
Written and directed by Bryan Chang Wai-hung, AFTER THE CRESCENT presents several hours in the life of 17 year-old Meme Lam (newcomer Ho Pui-yi, giving a very natural and unaffected performance). Memes father has been left bewildered by the death of his wife and wanders around in a mental haze, her little brother is irresponsible, and her mildly retarded elder brother requires constant attention. Recently broken up with her boyfriend Wah (a pirate CD hawker), Meme discovers that she is now two months pregnant and wanders the streets wondering what she should do. Along the way she encounters an old friend of the family, who only speaks with Meme because it provides a convenient way for her to avoid a persistent suitor; another friend at a nightclub who tries to talk Meme out of having an abortion; an affable goo wak jai with a somewhat dark past; a nurse at an abortion clinic; and, finally, the girl Wah is seeing now. Gradually, we spend a bit more time with these secondary characters, while Meme meets up with one more person before the night is over.
Produced in semi-documentary style with limited use of music and long takes (perfectly preserving those squirmingly awkward pauses we all face in daily life but rarely ever see accurately presented in movies), the film is an effective contrast of both realistic discourse and surrealistic asides, heightened by very good use of both ambient sounds and artificial silence. Fang Man-for, Lau Wai-shan, and Yun Wing-hung co-star. Chang (whose name would be more properly translated in Cantonese as Cheung) has worked on the screenplays for several films, most notably the police thriller BLUE LIGHTNING and the infamous RUN AND KILL. AFTER THE CRESCENT was his directorial debut and he has since gone on to make AMONG THE STARS (2000). The materials used for the transfer show some wear and contrasts tend to be weak but the presentation has no overtly distracting flaws.
A HK / Canada co-production, DREAMTRIPS was shot in 35mm Cinemascope and mixed in stereo and it is obvious that writer / producer / director Kal Ng was determined to get the most from his meager $200,000 budget. Now living in Toronto, HK native Jenny (Jennifer Chan) has been struggling with insomnia and has not heard from her fiance, Charles, for a month. While wandering around the city one evening, she overhears a woman talking about "Dreamtrips," a virtual program offering a vivid dream world experience, and decides to try it herself. Upon activating the simulation, Jenny finds herself back in HK and is greeted by her guide, Jack (film critic Paul Fonoroff), who locates Charles for her. Charles has been a frequent user of Dreamtrips and the things he tells Jenny do nothing but increase her anxiety. In an emotional outburst, Jenny grabs Jack's control device from him and inadvertently brings about an error that leaves her position in the program unstable. Jenny soon regresses to a younger age and finds herself in a barren, unstable quadrant with Vic, one of the key developers of Dreamtrips. Vic has determined that Charles is responsible for a more serious problem within the system and that Jenny is the only one who can correct the damage that he has unintentionally caused. This will not be easy, however, as she only has a tenuous grasp on how to properly utilize this environment.
Jenny is able to relive certain moments of her past and uses the knowledge she has gained over the intervening years to impart the future to Charles. This is a familiar device in science fiction, with the protagonist invariably attempting to ward off some upcoming global catastrophe. Here, it serves a more cerebral function, and Jenny's opportunity to vividly re-examine the various stages of her life allows Ng to make some interesting conjecture about the significance of childhood imagination and memories, the nature of human creativity and, even, creation itself. Ultimately, though, the project would have worked better at half the running time as there is not enough narrative here to support a feature. Wayne Kwok, Gary Sze, and Wan Chi-hong also appear. The image is a bit soft, the white subtitles are occasionally hard to read, and panning shots tend to stutter but the presentation is otherwise acceptable.
Set shortly before the handover, IN THE DUMPS tells of a man who returns home to HK from overseas to look for work. When things don't pan out, he decides to try and operate as an "immigration advisor." While handing out fliers one day, he encounters a flighty and unusual woman who piques his interest. The two meet again soon afterwards and spend the night together. In a parallel storyline, another man (who has also met the woman) lives an impoverished existence as a rubbish collector and finds life with his pregnant wife to be less than fulfilling. He desperately wants to leave the trash and squalor of HK behind and talks to the consultant about how to do it. However, later events cause a change in his plans.
Some viewers may be put off by the fact that the narrative never really amounts to much but IN THE DUMPS is rewarding as both a look at characters on the margins of HK society and a comment on the identity crisis many Hongkies were experiencing at this time. The sequences shot in the streets are excellent and unfold far more realistically than in mainstream features (no crowds of bystanders smiling or pointing at the camera here). Director William Kwok Wai-shun went on to make AND SO AND SO (2000), which is reportedly along similar lines. Contrasts tend to be very harsh and the image is often grainy, though it's not clear just how much of that was by design or a result of the small budget. Smearing is common and, when the English subtitles appear on more than one line, they may not be visible when the disc is played on some Region 1 DVD players.
Vincent Chui Wan-shun and Alex Lai's LONG DISTANCE is an intriguing, if not entirely persuasive, short about communication and memories. Whenever a World Cup Soccer match is broadcast, a man is awakened in the middle of the night by the phone. The pattern is always the same: the caller remains silent for a few seconds and then hangs up. Although he could easily turn off his phone or change his number, the man does not mind the disturbance because he finds it pleasing to stay awake and reminisce about the past during these late hours. A woman thinks back to how, as a schoolgirl, she used to travel to the telephone company and make secret overseas calls to her boyfriend. She relates her feelings about those early morning trips to the host of a talk radio show but he fails to grasp the reasons behind why she is calling. The man receiving the calls and the woman who used to make them were the two involved in that long distance relationship, aspects of which remain vivid in their thoughts. The image is soft and the subtitles may not be visible when the disc is played on some Region 1 DVD decks.
Of more interest is Chui's BETRAYAL, another story about communication, this time centering around a husband and wife whose marriage seems stable on the surface but may be gradually disintegrating. Struggling writer Ming (Antonio Chan) finds potential material via the problems being experienced by his friend (Louie Yat Cheong, whose character is not given a name). While his wife (Fair Shum) was away on business, The Friend used the opportunity to sleep with his ex. He did this because he suspected that his wife may have cheated on him though, even now, he is still not entirely convinced of this. That uncertainty is weighing heavily upon the man but he cannot bring himself to ask his wife about it or, even, to sneak a peek at the woman's diary. The film works as both a mystery (via the way in which The Friend comes upon clues suggesting that his assumptions were true) and a look into the lives of these two ordinary but likeable and realistically drawn people. In addition to Chui's main message about the import of discourse, there is amusing irony to be found in the fact that Ming manages to get so wrapped up in his friend's situation, when he cannot even communicate on a meaningful level with his own mother (Hui Fan). The score is a mix of melancholy but lovely original cues by Hui Cheung-wai and material from the works of celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (KWAIDAN, IN THE REALM OF PASSION, RAN). Tracking shots tend to stutter and blur but the presentation is otherwise fine.
As has been proven repeatedly over the years, HK cinema still has a long way to go when it comes to presenting its homosexuals characters as anything other than embarrassing stereotypes. These two shorts by director Simon Chung Tak-shing offer a refreshing change from that norm.
STANLEY BELOVED concerns Kevin (who is Eurasian) and James (who is Caucasian), both of whom are slacking off during their summer break from the international school. Kevin's Chinese father (who is not currently on the best of terms with either his wife or son) curtly informs him that his next term will be spent at a boarding school in England. Kevin (Wes Wong) is not given any choice in the matter and decides not to tell James (Oliver Williams) for the time being. The two spend the night at Stanley Beach, reminiscing over a couple beers and a joint. While James is sleeping, Kevin surreptitiously kisses him, awakening the teen. Nothing is said about the moment. The next morning, Kevin goes swimming and asks his friend to join him. James declines, saying that it is too cold and too early in the morning, and we are left to interpret the message behind his refusal. The performances are good and the screenplay makes valid observations about the dilemma Kevin finds himself in. Chung gives himself a cameo as a rude MTR passenger. The materials show no more wear than you would expect, though contrasts tend to be a bit weak. The sound is sharp and nicely mixed.
In FIRST LOVE & OTHER PAINS, student Mark (Alex Wong Shing-yip) begins an English Literature course under British professor Hugh Graham (Edmund Strode), whose reputation as a strict instructor is almost legendary on campus. Mark (who has lost both of his parents and lives with his aunt) follows Hugh one day and discovers that his teacher is also a playwright. The youth catches one of the two performances the play receives (the actors on-stage are Wes Wong and Oliver Williams from STANLEY BELOVED) and begins to seek Hugh out, visiting his office, inviting him out for drinks, etc. Mark is one of the few bright lights in Hugh's class and, in truth, his life. Depressed by his inability to get the play published in the UK, while also suffering creative burnout and a feeling of increasing irrelevance, Hugh seeks solace from the bottle and young men he picks up in bars. Shortly after one such sexual encounter, Mark arrives at Hugh's apartment (ostensibly to return an umbrella) and the two end up sleeping together. Even though it was Mark who sought him out, Hugh does everything he can to dissuade the youth's repeated attempts to prolong their relationship.
Mark and Hugh are an obvious reference to the way Britain and HK were previously associated, though FIRST LOVE & OTHER PAINS is more subtle in other areas. It is especially nice to see how Mark's view of Hugh as both a potential father figure and a lover is not decried in any way, as it no doubt would be in a commercial HK film. There is also no condemnation of the thirty year difference in their ages, though this is something about which the professor definitely worries at first (following their night together, Hugh is lecturing on Nabokov's "Lolita" and the obvious parallels between the novel and what just happened leaves the professor noticeably uncomfortable). The only real misstep here involves the female dean of the university (played by Collette Koo). The character was evidently meant to be a parody of the stereotypical HK academic but ended up being a cartoonish distraction in an otherwise shrewdly written and interesting work. The transfer looks and sounds very nice. There is some cropping of the subtitles in spots, though sentences are always still coherent.
Review copies provided by Ying E Chi Films.