Cheung King-wai, making his narrative feature debut, opens with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the effect that people, even bad people, are often far more innocent and pure-hearted than most realise, including we ourselves. The quote, overlaid above the vision of the city at night glowing red like dying furnace, introduces us to the story we are about to hear – one which is dark, too dark perhaps to imagine, but then again all too real. Caught in the twilight half light, Hong Kong is fiery cauldron of hell, yet when the sun rises and the mist rolls in, it’s hard to see what the night made so terrible.
As if to underline the confusion, we begin with a lost old man who is desperately searching either for a way in or a way out. His housekeeper eventually comes to find him and bring him home and we discover he is the father of one of our heroines, Angela (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) – a police detective expecting her first child. Angela’s father, Dr. Ho, is suffering from advanced dementia which is beginning to take its toll on Angela’s home life even if she leaves most of the responsibility to her compassionate husband, Tony.
Meanwhile, the bodies of a middle-aged couple have been discovered at a reservoir. The police set about looking for the couple’s missing daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung Yung-ting), only to find her holed up in the mountains with her best friend Eric (Zeno Koo Ting-hin). Connie reacts with eerie calm when informed of the deaths of her parents, merely repeating that she was already aware before agreeing to accompany the police to the station where she, matter of factly, confesses to having been the one who murdered them.
Cheung’s intention is not to create a murder mystery, Connie freely confesses her crime and isn’t particularly interested in explanations or justifications (though as it turns out, she would have plenty). He is much more interested in the examining the society which made such an “unthinkable” crime possible, exposing the dark heart of an increasingly confused city which finds itself pulled in two directions by various political anxieties.
Back with the original image of the city as a pit of hell, each of our protagonists becomes a link in a circular chain of violence, turning their own feelings of oppression, marginalisation, and despair back on their fellow suffers. Connie, as we find out, comes from an extremely dysfunctional home in which her truck driver father lists small time pimping among his “hobbies”, openly masturbates while watching hardcore Japanese pornography in the family living room only enjoying it more for the thought of taunting his teenage daughter, rapes the family’s disabled mother, and seemingly ignores his grown up son. Catching Connie’s friend Eric hiding in a cupboard in her room, he assumes the pair are up to no good and drags the boy out to viciously beat him with his belt just to remind him who it is that is boss around here, pausing only to remind Connie that “a virgin pussy” is worth more money and if she’s that desperate he can find her a client to satisfy both their needs.
Strangely enough, Eric does not completely object to the beating. He sees it as a sign of validation. Like Connie, Eric is also a lonely, marginalised figure but in his case because he is gay and desperately wants not to be. Being mistaken for Connie’s boyfriend is, in his eyes, a kind of proof of his “manhood” and so it’s a beating he is almost grateful to receive unlike those from his schoolmates who taunt him with broom handles and scream homophobic slurs which only add to his feelings of extreme worthlessness. Eric wanted to be friends with Connie to escape both suspicion and loneliness, but she, in a cutting moment of despair, also uses his insecurity over his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy as a “man” against him to get him to help with her plan to free herself of parental tyranny. Connie hates bullies, but she hates people who don’t stand up to them more. Thus she becomes the gentle defender of another marginalised figure – Jessica, an Indian girl who is targeted because she wears trousers under her school skirt, constantly assailed with slurs about “stinky” curry and various other stereotypical insults that leave her in tears.
Eric points out that his beating at the hands of Connie’s father didn’t bother him because it was “understandable” – a father finds a boy hiding in his daughter’s room and chases him out. The logic is sound, it’s a story you’ve heard before – not like the senseless acts of violence which surround him every day and cannot be explained. Connie’s crime too seems “understandable” given all she’s suffered, a precaution taken to save her from a still more terrible fate she feared might soon come her way. This is the uncomfortable realisation with which Angela is faced during her investigation, forcing her to confront her own difficult relationship with her apparently tyrannical father who made her mother’s life a misery. Angela has to accept that she could easily have been Connie, or Connie her, though she ultimately made the (still taboo) decision to place her father into a home rather than continue to look after him herself. Tube fed and alone, Angela’s father is utterly powerless but however much she wishes she could abandon him she continues to visit even if her resentment is plain. Then again, if a parent breaks the contract first in failing to care for their child in infancy, should the child still be expected to care for them when they are old? Perhaps they owe each other nothing other than civility and an attempt at forgiveness.
Asked why she ran to the mountains, Connie replies that she went to live “the life I deserve”. Dreaming of a world “beyond the mist”, free from the city’s confusion and the constant stream of violence passing from one lonely soul to another, Connie transgressed in order to free herself but has only found greater imprisonment and ongoing mental torment. Beautifully photographed, Cheung’s narrative debut is a bleak and gloomy affair but somehow maintains its belief in a better place Somewhere Beyond the Mist even if it continues to elude us.
Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.
Original trailer (English subtitles)