Neither as maudlin nor as ironic as its witty English title implies, Leung Ming Kai and Kate Reilly’s four-part anthology Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (夜香・鴛鴦・深水埗) attempts to capture the flavours of a Hong Kong in transition. Imbued with a gentle nostalgia the four stories do not so much eulogise as celebrate the island’s unique culture while perhaps provoking questions about an uncertain future in the face of political instability and widespread protest.
The first of the four shorts, however, looks back towards the past as an old lady suffering with dementia repeatedly tells the same handful of stories to her patient Indonesian helper, Mia. In an ironic twist, the tale takes the two women on a circular journey as Chi Yin, the old woman, becomes determined to reconnect with her history through visiting a reunion for those who came to Hong Kong from her village on the Mainland while Mia patiently tries to explain that her son has instructed her not to take his mother out. Eventually she relents, humorously videoing the old woman promising not to tell her son so she can show her later, but thinks better of it after realising Chi Yin’s real longing to visit him at his job in the city. Mia is of course separated from her own son while caring for Chi Yin, the commonalities between the two women becoming ever more clear as their stories mix, mingle, and repeat in the confused mind of the older woman herself a migrant to Hong Kong who came to the island in childhood, recounting a life of hardship thankfully long since past.
The city’s economic development is also at the forefront of the second tale which sees two grown up brothers revisiting their mother’s toy store in a now rundown part of town where, as another store keeper puts it, everyone is old and so there is no more call for toys. That might be one reason why it seems that their mother has decided to sell up, but the loss of their history seems to weigh heavier on one brother than the other. While the older has married and has a child of his own with another on the way, the younger has lost his job and secretly wants to take over the shop himself only is uncertain how this news will read to his mother. While they reminisce and recover long buried treasures of their youth, the differences and dilemmas between the two men are perhaps emblematic of the push and pull of modern Hong Kong torn in two directions uncertain which parts of the past to discard and which to keep. Nevertheless, the two men eventually find common ground and mutual support even as their conflicting desires send them each in opposing directions.
The two at the centre of Yuenyeung meanwhile were always destined to part, yet their separation has its share of confusion and awkwardness. The titular Yuenyeung is a local drink acknowledged as intangible culture which has, according to the knowledgable protagonist, a slightly dark history in that it was created in part to enable further exploitation of port workers under British colonialism and consists of super strong Ceylon tea and caffeine high coffee mixed with condensed milk. American teaching assistant Ruth is keen to try it as part of her total immersion in Hong Kong culture, but local economics teacher John isn’t much of a fan not just because of its slightly sour history but because he seems to have an internalised snobbery when it comes to being a Hong Konger. Nevertheless, with an obvious ulterior motive that Ruth either is oblivious to or chooses to ignore, he joins her on her voyage through the city’s lower end eateries where the locals choose to eat with the occasional visit to a “romantic” KFC which whatever else you might want to say about it has a lovely view of an idealised Hong Kong street scene. Tellingly, Ruth is already planning to move on to China, while a rebound John who perhaps misunderstood her has his eyes ironically set on an extended trip to the States on a kind of cultural odyssey of his own.
Breaking entirely with the first three sequences, and in truth a little out of place, the last is the most direct in abandoning the dialogue heavy, two-hander focus for pure documentary following an eccentric young woman running as a candidate for political office in order to provide opposition for an otherwise unopposed incumbent during the fractious 2019 elections. Jennifer describes those who don’t support the protests as “weird”, but also affirms that ideally she wants a steady job in a bank and to live a dull, comfortable life as a “useless” person. When not out flyering she works as a barista/bar tender and later claims that she didn’t even want to be on the council because the local populace is quite annoying. In a strange way she provides the perfect encapsulation of a fractious political moment, a mix of surprisingly conventional thought patterns coupled with a real desire for freedom and lasting social change. Never quite as a maudlin as the title suggests, Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down is perhaps filled with a nostalgia for a Hong Kong that’s not quite gone but also has within it a quiet resilience if only in its insistence on memory as a political act.
Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)