“It doesn’t matter how the food is cooked. Let’s just enjoy it in the presence of each other and not think too much” a regretful grandmother advises giving perhaps the best advice for how to survive an awkward family gathering in Eric Tsang Hing-Weng’s autobiographically inspired familial melodrama Hong Kong Family (過時·過節). Coloured with the shades of exile, Tsang’s melancholy exploration of a fragmenting family unit ponders the limits of communication between those who should be closest along with the lingering resentments and toxic legacies that poison otherwise loving relationships. 

An opening sequence set eight years before the main action lays bare the tension between middle-aged housewife Ling (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her mild-mannered husband Chun (Tse Kwan-Ho) who sits silently in the back of the family car as she berates him for having recently lost his job and been unable to find another which is particularly inconvenient as they’ve just taken out a mortgage and bought a flat. 17-year-old Yeung (Edan Lui) sitting in the front passenger seat tries to keep the peace but refers to his parents as Mr & Mrs Chan, while his older sister, 20-year-old Ki (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), pretends not to hear escaping from reality by listening to music on her headphones. When they finally arrive at her mother’s home, a well appointed detached house out in the country, they are greeted by Ling’s brother Ming who has already fallen out with his mother (Alice Fung So-Po) in part because it seems she doesn’t like his wife who has declined to attend this Winter Solstice dinner. When his mother suspects him of stealing money, Ming angrily storms out vowing never to contact her again and provoking a similar row between Ling and Chun in which she asks for a divorce. Pushed past his limit, Chun starts hacking at a chair with a meat cleaver and eventually strikes peacemaker Yeung who then abruptly severs ties with his dad and moves out on his own. 

Yet eight years later it’s Yeung who seems to be looking for a way back to his family only he doesn’t know how to find it. He’s been working on a virtual reality “game” that would allow users to interact with AI versions of absent friends and relatives, helping them to communicate rather than offering an escape from reality though that may be in a sense what Yeung is doing in interacting with a simulacrum of his father rather than facing him directly. His parents did not divorce, but are clearly unhappy. Ling has found another simulacrum for familial life working as a housekeeper for a wealthy single father, while Chun is driving a taxi and secretly planning to start again by leaving for Mainland China and a job in a company set up by an old friend. According to grandma it seems their marriage may have been semi-arranged (by her) and years of trying have seemingly not improved their inability to communicate with each other. 

Ki, meanwhile, has been married and divorced since the fateful Winter Solstice dinner over which grandma kept trying to marry her off explaining that she married a random man to escape her family only to boomerang back two years later when it didn’t work out. She too is lying to her parents, pretending to go to work every day despite having lost her job and later drifting into an unexpected romance with a free spirited nomad from Malaysia who jolts her out of her sense of inertia in telling her to try to be true to herself. The return of Ming’s now teenage daughter Joy (Angela Yuen Lai-Lam) from exile in England offers the opportunity to repair their fragmenting bonds, but it seems some wounds run too deep to ever be fully healed. Chun is pulled towards the Mainland just as Uncle Ming had been pulled towards England, while Yeung just wants to go “home” but doesn’t know how and Ling frantically tries to preserve a sense of family just as Ki seems to have made her peace to go wherever her heart takes her.

That might be one reason that there are only women around the dinner table at another Winter Solstice, for some the first, each trying to salvage something and try to get along if only in a superficial show of togetherness while the men attempt to talk through their troubles agreeing to head towards the dinner table but in the end walking in circles. The elegantly lensed final scene may suggest that the family is in someways trapped by its history yet destined to scatter but echoes in its ambiguity offering the distant hope of a far off reconciliation but little promise of its arrival. 


Hong Kong Family is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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