Following their Hong Kong Trilogy, first time feature director Jenny Suen and veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle get back together for another love letter to the “Pearl of the Orient”. With 2047 always in the back of the frame, The White Girl (白色女孩) is the story of a Hong Kong that was and will be as seen through the space which connects the two. In 2047 the mantra of One Country, Two Systems which has been applied to Hong Kong and surrounding territories since the 1997 handover will come to an end with Hong Kong simply becoming another region of China. With this starting point in mind, Suen and Doyle are left wondering what will happen in the next five years as they watch elements of the city begin to die or be eroded both by the passage of time and by the growing proximity of the 2047 deadline.
The White Girl (Angela Yuen), as she’s called, lives in Pearl Village where they still do things the old fashioned way. Living with her fisherman father, The White Girl dresses in long, dark clothing, and wears sunshades with a large floppy hat which hides her face and gives her a mysterious air of anonymity and otherworldliness. She does this because her father has told her that she is allergic to the sun, as her late mother was, so that she will never stray too far from him. Now a grown woman, The White Girl is beginning to think differently. She no longer takes her medication and has discovered a chest containing her mother’s clothes and a walkman with a tape inside featuring her mother singing her trademark song. Defying her father by walking around the town dressed only in her mother’s vintage white camisole and nickers, The White Girl who once felt invisible is seen by everyone including a new visitor to the village, Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri), a runaway Japanese artist squatting in local ruin.
Pearl Village, like Brigadoon, is a place that doesn’t quite exist. An example of the traditional Hong Kong fishing village which has all but died out, Pearl Village is a timeless place which seems to exist across eternity encompassing all eras and filled with a melancholy nostalgia. The White Girl longs to know the truth about her mother, putting on her very 1960s cheongsam and listening to her sing on her ‘80s walkman before walking to a pay phone to ring a DJ to ask him to play her mother’s song and then listening to it on a portable transistor radio. There are no mobile phones or computers and the major source of info in the village is the little boy, Ho Zai (whose name, in different characters, also means “oyster”), who keeps his ear to the ground and knows everything which goes on in the land that he regards as his.
What Ho Zai has discovered is that the village chief is about to sell them out. Creating controversy with the censor’s board, Ho Zai remarks on a destructive bridge project which will damage the beauty of his village, destroying wildlife and killing the beautiful dolphins which live in the sea off the coast. The “tourists” who come to the village (there is no real reason for a tourist to ever come here) are really developers who’ve come to hear the village chief’s plans which include bulldozing the beautiful mangrove forest Ho Zai loves so much to build a luxury mall.
Also on the list for eradication is the ruined mansion, built in the Chinese/British colonial style, in which Sakamoto is currently living. The White Girl regards the “ruins” as her palace but warns Sakamoto that the villagers believe it to be haunted. Sakamoto brands himself its ghost which touches a nerve with The White Girl whose pale skin and vacant aura have seen her also branded a “ghost”, leaving her feeling alone and invisible, trapped in her tiny, timeless world. Sakamoto, a temporary visitor to the unchanging village, is a literal outsider observing all around him from inside the ruins via the in built camera obscura and finding himself strangely drawn to The White Girl who reminds him of himself.
The White Girl will attempt to save her palace and succeed, but only for a time as her closing monologue tells us. In having spent so long not wanting to become invisible and insisting she is no ghost, she speaks to us as the ghost of a dying a world, occupying a liminal space between past and present where memory and dream collide. Her deeply felt non-romance with the Japanese visitor is destined to remain unfulfilled but that is its point, as she tells us, we exist in the space between us. Pearl Village is a place of endless longing in which familiar music wafts in on the breeze, haunted by its own future and existing within the shadow of an inescapable fall. Beautiful and ethereal, The White Girl is just as elusive as its heroine, lingering like a half remembered dream which ended far too soon leaving only melancholy and irresolvable longing in its place.
Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)