You might think, in this day and age, that guide dogs are a fairly uncontroversial subject, but it might interest you to know that Hong Kong apparently has a vast guide dog deficit with fewer than 40 working in the city as of 2016 which is around one for every 4,300 visually impaired people. That might be part of the reason that Little Q (小Q, Xiǎo Q), adapted from a Japanese photobook by Ryohei Akimoto & Kengo Ishiguro, largely plays out as a feature length advert for the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, which is one of only two organisations training guide dogs and was set up in 2011 ending a 26-year absence of any such body.
The film charts the entire life cycle of the titular Little Q, whom we first meet literally falling into the arms of grumpy pastry chef Po-ting (Simon Yam Tat-wah). Rewinding a little, we realise that Po-ting’s sister and her vet husband are involved with the raising of guide dogs, sending Little Q off to live with his “foster family” which, perhaps irresponsibly, is in the home of plucky little girl Tsz-kiu (Jessica Liu Chutian). For those who don’t know, and as the film perhaps hopes to illuminate, guide dogs are trained in a family home by ordinary people who’ve agreed to look after them for the first 18 months of their lives, after which the dogs are given a final aptitude test and then placed with a blind person for a probationary period to assess their compatibility. Of course, agreeing to foster a dog knowing that you’ll eventually have to give it up can be emotionally difficult even for an adult, so placing that responsibility on a child is only going to lead to tears, of which there are plenty as Tsz-kiu is finally forced to accept that Little Q can’t stay with her forever because she has a greater calling.
Simon (Him Law Chung-him), the trainer/co-ordinator, promises Tsz-kiu that he’ll make sure Little Q has a lovely life with a person who truly appreciates her and that he’ll be sure to bring Little Q right back if she’s ever hurt or mistreated, but in part he knows he’s being disingenuous because they’ve already decided she’ll be going to Po-ting. Po-ting does not want a guide dog and is only getting one because of his sister’s connection to the programme. The problem is that Po-ting was always a “difficult” person. A well known TV pastry chef, he made a name for himself being mean in the way only a celebrity chef can. He has no respect for his service animal in part because he has no respect for other people, and because he was good at what he did people let him get away with it. Po-ting once cut down a contestant on the TV show by insisting that a chef must use all five senses, so he feels particularly trolled by the universe to have lost his sight and is struggling to accept his blindness. Feeling a sense of internalised shame because of his disability in addition to the fear and anxiety involved with adjusting to his new life has made him even more unpleasant and resentful than he was before. Angrily insisting he needs no additional help, he rejects and mistreats Little Q, even violently throwing her out of his well appointed home in the pouring rain.
As this is Little Q’s story, however, we only get a back seat view to Po-ting’s gradual softening as he begins to let her into his life, engineering not only a warmer relationship with his sister/partner in the pastry shop (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) but also with his apprentices, while he begins to see that the loss of his sight is only a change and not a tragedy. Through it all, Little Q is at his side, steadfastly loyal even when he tries to push her away, which is perhaps not quite the best message to be sending though it does emphasise the intense attachment that necessarily develops between a guide dog and its owner.
Law hints at an ethical dilemma in pointing out the toll taken on the dogs in the course of their work, but heads it off in reminding us that they get to “retire” and live out their final days as pampered pets while demonstrating that the reformed Po-ting breaks all the rules by playing ball with Little Q like a regular family dog. The paradox is difficult to bear as owners must act in symbiosis with their dogs, but are reminded that they’re service animals belonging to the organisation not personal pets and should something happen to them, will be shuffled on to others in need or returned to their foster families. Nevertheless, Little Q gets the best of both worlds, bonding fiercely with the grumpy Po-ting as he figures out how to live and love by following her lead.
Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.
Trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)