Till We Meet Again (生前约死后, Steven Ma, 2019)

“What if you let go of my hand and I get lost?” an over anxious little boy asks his mother. “Then you should stay where you are,” she tells him, “Mum will definitely come back for you.” It’s an instruction the now adult Wai (Steven Ma Chun-Wai) has perhaps taken too literally, struggling under the weight of grief and filial guilt while standing still waiting for his mother to find him again in the hope of earning her forgiveness for a sin he does not quite want to remember. Semi-autobiographical, Steven Ma’s Till We Meet (生前约死后) again is at once a dark psychodrama of man undone by loss but also a deeply touching evocation of an unbreakable mother son bond. 

Now a solitary salesman, 30-something Wai has only one wish – to reunite with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in over 10 years fearing that she bears some kind of grudge against him. We in fact see Mui (Josephine Koo Mei-Wah), his mother, angrily telling another woman, Lai (Bee Wong Chiu-Yam), that she refuses to see her son though the scene is not quite as it first seems. After abruptly quitting his job, Wai wanders out into the street and endures some kind of mental breakdown after which he visits his psychiatrist who reminds him that his mother is dead and has been for some time. 

Wai avows that he doesn’t like taking his medication because it makes him feel “sluggish” but increasingly finds his mental universe fracturing, shifting between sepia-tinted memories of his early childhood during which his mother first became ill and his life as a young man during which she suffered a relapse and later passed away. We begin to doubt Wai’s perception, uncertain if people and events he encounters are “real” or a product of his psychosis. His mother, ghost or merely spectre of memory, hovers on the sidelines apparently unwilling to see him though perhaps for his own good in hoping he will finally be able to move on and learn to be happy in acceptance of his loss. 

Tracey (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying), his perhaps unrealistically invested psychiatrist, reminds Wai that he isn’t the only person who’s ever been bereaved or felt abandoned, left behind by those who have gone far away. She herself lost her mother young and was then abandoned by her father who left her in the care of an uncle who too abandoned her and ran off with all her father’s money. Another ghostly, perhaps imagined, conversation with Mui reveals that again Tracey may not have the full story and may never get it but unlike Wai may still have the chance to achieve a kind of closure with the traumatic past. He meanwhile carries the burden of his repressed guilt as it slowly works its way to the surface, cutting through his fragile psyche like a knife. 

While Mui’s conversations with third parties presumably taking place entirely within Wai’s mind may hint at a deeper psychological crisis they are essentially attempts to work out his guilt and shame, one-sided dialogues that eventually guide him back towards an acceptance of the truth he was intent on forgetting beginning with the traumatic fact of his mother’s death. Perhaps to some Wai’s maternal attachment may seem extreme, as the psychiatrist echoes in reminding him he’s not the only son to suffer such catastrophic loss, but it’s underpinned by a sense of filial guilt that lies at the heart of their bond in his worry that his own distress pushed Mui into pursuing a path she may otherwise have rejected on the grounds it would only cause her more pain for an additional few weeks of life. 

Trapped in his grief and guilt, Wai staggers through a nightmarish existence elegantly manifested in Ma’s abrupt tonal shifts as Wai finds himself staggering along a darkened corridor complete with faulty lighting and a single exit, while the sky itself seems to brighten to more romantic tones as he embraces a fantasy of a happier time drawing closer either to a kind of closure or the victory of his delusion whichever way you wish to read it. A painful journey through guilt and grieving, Ma’s unsparing drama provides few easy answers for living with loss but does perhaps allow its hero a degree of escape if only in unreality. 


Till We Meet Again streams in the UK until 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)

The Empty Hands (空手道, Chapman To, 2017)

“You have to remember. You’ll always meet someone stronger than you. They might beat you down, but no matter what you need to have the courage to face it.” the defeated heroine of Chapman To’s second feature The Empty Hands (空手道) is reminded by her rediscovered mentor pushing her towards a literal reclaiming of her space in accepting her father’s legacy. The title, a literal translation of the characters which form the word “karate”, is perhaps also an allusion to the heroine’s sense of powerlessness and displacement even as she learns to rediscover a source of strength in that which she had previously dismissed as a worthless burden. 

30-something Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) is the daughter of a Japanese émigré, Akira (Yasuaki Kurata), who came to Hong Kong in 1972 on a work transfer and later married a local woman. Teaching karate as a hobby in his spare time, he eventually discovered that in the Hong Kong of the late 70s and 80s, martial arts was a valuable commodity and so he sunk all his savings into buying a sizeable flat in Causeway Bay, converting the living area into a Dojo with the family relegated to neighbouring rooms. The business did well but the family floundered and when Mari’s mother asked Akira to mortgage the dojo to help out her brother who ran into financial trouble during the 89 crisis his refusal and the uncle’s subsequent suicide led her to leave the family. A lonely child, Mari complains that her overly strict father forced her to practice karate against her will, something which she gave up as a brown belt after an unexpected tournament defeat swearing off the practice ever since.

When Akira dies suddenly, however, Mari is forced into a reconsideration of her life choices on discovering that he has left only 49% of the apartment/dojo to her with the controlling share entrusted to a former pupil, Chan Keung (Chapman To Man-Chat). Prior to this discovery, she had been cynically planning to subdivide the apartment into seven units, renting out six and living in the seventh solely on her proceeds from exploiting Hong Kong’s notoriously difficult housing market. Mari is, it has to be said, often difficult to like, defiantly aloof and with a healthy contempt for other people even throwing back a racial slur, albeit with a pinch of irony, at a little boy who’s been frequenting the dojo expressly in order to fight back against the discrimination he faces in everyday life as a member of the Indian community. This might be something you’d expect Mari to show a little more empathy for but she seems ambivalent in her sense of identity immediately introducing herself as Japanese on giving her name to man who works at the radio station where she gets a job as a security guard and with whom she drifts into a doomed affair. 

Mari’s affair with a married man is another thing of which she believes her father disapproved, but it’s also a reflection of her low self-esteem and awkward relationship with paternal authority in that she continues to seek but is afraid to ask for approval from emotionally distant men. She claims to have only one friend, Peggy (Dada Chan Ching), whom she somewhat cruelly dismisses as “all boobs and no brain”, explaining to her that what she likes about Ka Chun (Ryan Lau Chun-Kong) is his “loyalty” ironically admiring his refusal to leave his childhood sweetheart wife but also confident that he will one day choose her. Beaten down by life, Mari has perhaps backed away from the fight passively retreating while refusing to deal with her conflicted sense of identity and desire. She resents the implication that she petulantly jacked in karate after a single defeat destroyed her sense of confidence, but as we discover it is indeed her fear of failure which has been holding her back. Chan Keung’s bet that he will sign over his share of the apartment if she can remain standing, even if she loses, after three rounds in an upcoming competition is then a subtle way of getting her stand up again and rediscover a sense of confidence to fight for herself in the arena of life. 

Ironically enough, Chan Keung had been kicked out of the dojo for doing just that, told off for using karate to prove himself when its true purpose should be in the defence of others in need of help. He rediscovers the true spirit of karate after rescuing a little girl from a predatory triad, but Akira’s mission is also one of redemption for Chan Keung as he patiently mentors the originally reluctant Mari back towards an acceptance both of her father and of her relationship with karate along with the confidence that counters defeat. A meditative mood piece from the hitherto comedian To anchored by a stand out performance from Tang (who apparently spent six months training for the role) pushing back against glossy rom-com typecasting, The Empty Hands is less martial arts movie than gentle life lesson as its beaten-down heroine learns to fight her way out of existential malaise towards a more forgiving future. 


The Empty Hands streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Focus Hong Kong Film Festival to Launch in UK in February 2021

With cinemas closed for the foreseeable future, the team behind Chinese Visual Festival is the latest to head online with a brand new mini film festival dedicated to Hong Kong cinema arriving just in time for Chinese New Year. Focus Hong Kong will stream five features, one classic and four contemporary, as well as a series of Fresh Wave Shorts to homes around the UK from 9th to 15th February.

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain

Anarchic wuxia action from Tsui Hark in which a reluctant Tang Dynasty soldier ventures through a crevice and into a supernatural conflict. Released in the wake of Star Wars this zeitgeisty 1983 SFX fest has lost none of its charm.

Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash them Down

Leung Ming Kai & Kate Reilly’s omnibus film explores the unique culture of Hong Kong at a moment of crisis through four very different stories. Review.

A Witness out of the Blue

An eccentric policeman investigates a murder based on the testimony of the only eyewitness, a parrot, in Andrew Fung Chih-chiang’s absurdist noir thriller. Review.

Till We Meet Again

Struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother a decade earlier, a fragile man undergoes a psychological crisis in Steven Ma’s sensitive, semi-autobiographical drama.

The Empty Hands

A young woman reaches a crisis point when her Japanese father suddenly dies and she discovers he’s left half the dojo (which was also their home) to a former pupil who pledges to sign his share over to her if she can last three rounds in a fight in this unusual character drama directed by and starring Chapman To with a stand out leading performance from Stephy Tang.

“Tickets” are on sale now via the official website for the reasonable price of £2.99 for features while shorts stream for free and you can also pick up an all access pass for £8.99. The festival will be back for another mini fest in March before returning later in the year for its first full edition and you can keep up to date with all the latest news via the official website, Facebook Page, Twitter account, and Instagram channel.