Boy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.
Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?
Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which eats dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.
Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.
Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.
Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.
Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.
Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)