Everything Under Control (超神經械劫案下, Ying Chi-Wen, 2023)

A cocky band of security guards find themselves on the back foot when they’re ambushed by gangsters and one of guys decides to hightail it with the loot in Ying Chi-Wen’s anarchic take on Taiwanese movie Trick or Treat which was itself inspired by the Korean film To Catch a Virgin Ghost. A Lunar New Year release, Everything Under Control (超神經械劫案下) is a typically anarchic affair full of zany nonsense comedy and random gags but is ultimately a redemption story and a defence of community. 

Possibly in a nod to mainland censors the “heroes” are now private security officers rather than actual policemen and have a rather cynical view of their work. The cocky Yau-shing (Hins Cheung King-Hin) who wears sunshades and talks a big game, laughs at rookie recruit Penguin’s questions about about a possible ambush explaining that, in a slice of dark humour, you’d need to rob around 10 convoys before you could afford a Hong Kong flat so it’s not worth the risk nor the effort. Nevertheless in what seems to be at least in part an inside job, the gang are indeed ambushed by gangsters working for Boss Lai (Juno Mak) while transporting diamonds across town on the behalf of an elite tycoon. When Penguin unexpectedly fights back, fellow guard Jelly decides to snatch the diamonds and run with a view to starting a new life in Malaysia. Boss Lai is understandably unimpressed and orders his underling, Monk, to accompany Yau-shing and Penguin as they attempt to track down Jelly and get the diamonds back while he holds their friend Pig Blood hostage as collateral. 

After swerving to avoid what seemed to be the ghostly figure of a young woman in the road, Jelly ends up in a weird village with its own theme song that he has to bribe his way into. His presence is definitely unwelcome and the villagers’ behaviour is undeniably suspicious even in their weird hippie commune aesthetic though the diamonds themselves become something of a MacGuffin as a battle begins between the security guys and the villagers who are understandably keen to defend their territory from incursion especially as it seems there may have been an attempt to force them off their land. “Everyone has something they want to protect” according to weird village chief Wong Cool (Ivana Wong Yuen-Chi) whether it be like her her community, diamonds, status, or the lives of friends though truth be told that doesn’t seem to be at the top of Yau-shing’s list, poor Pig Blood more or less forgotten about by everyone. 

Nevertheless, Ying amps up the weirdness in the quirky village with its rumours of a vengeful ghost who kidnaps “virile men” and gives them what otherwise seems to be a strangely childish punishment adding a note of creepy horror to the guys’ predicament. Penguin even comes to the conclusion that he has psychic abilities and is able to read a crime scene with the power of his mind, committed to the pursuit of justice but also endearingly dim. Monk, meanwhile, is some kind of cinephile gangster who is mocked by his mother for not being a “real man” because he’s never been to a film festival. The guys’ car radio also seems to be permanently tuned to an entertainment program where they offer acerbic comments about the Hong Kong film industry. After a while, we might wonder if we too are being affected by the purple sporing plants found all over the forest which cause Jelly to have a weird fever dream involving a kappa, a Nian beast, and the apparently well-endowed Goddess of Fortune who insists he say “Gong hei fat choy” despite it not being New Year in the movie even though it obviously is to the audience. 

As the radio host admits, redemption doesn’t come from outside forces but by one’s own moral character which explains Yau-shing’s final change of heart, dropping his cynicism and deciding to believe in a better world after all. “Serve with our hearts, protect with our lives” it says on the outside of their van, and Yau-shing may have discovered something worth protecting while the diamonds remain more or less forgotten along with Lai’s ultimatum and Pig Blood’s fate. Decidedly strange, Ying’s genre hoping crime caper strays into some dark corners of human activity but maintains a lightness of touch along with genuine heart even as it does so.


Everything Under Control was released in UK cinemas courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀, Jack Ng Wai-Lun, 2023)

“Something is wrong” a defence lawyer eventually asserts, witnessing a blatant attempt at perverting the course of justice right in front of her but otherwise unsure what to do about it when her opponents are so sure that they really are above the law. The directorial debut from screenwriter Jack Ng Wai-lun, A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀) is the latest in a series of films to put the judicial system on trial in pointing out that we are not in fact all equal before the law and the systems that are intended to protect us can often by subverted. 

Subverting the legal system was in a sense what the hero, fast-talking lawyer Adrian Lam (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah), had been trying to do. After years on the bench, his career as a magistrate is going nowhere and he doesn’t really bother to show up anymore which is why he’s abruptly demoted to a committee dealing with potentially obscene material. Cutting his losses, he decides to join the private sector working for a sleazy firm representing the rich and powerful. His first case is supposed to be a walk in the park, defending a woman, Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong Dan-Ni), accused of murdering her daughter. As usual, Lam assumes the case will be easy to win and doesn’t really bother putting the work in, especially once he finds out the mother was the mistress of a powerful man, Desmond Chung (Adam Pak Tin-Nam), and assumes sorting out the murder charge will help him get in with the elite. Only Lam badly miscalculates and owing to his own hubris sees his heartbroken client sentenced to 17 years in prison for a crime she almost certainly did not commit. 

It’s a huge wake up call for Lam who is suddenly snapped out of his cynicism and burdened by the guilty conscience of the title knowing that it’s his sloppiness that sent a bereaved young mother to serve out the rest of her youth in jail. Opening a small office of his own in a rundown part of town he resolves to serve a better kind of justice, but also determines to do what he can for Jolene in an effort to correct his mistake. He gets a chance when someone involved with the case dies and leaves a note explaining that they lied during the original trial, but as the wealthy Chung family is involved he finds himself frustrated at every turn. No one is brave enough to go against them, while their sleazy legal advisor Tung (Michael Wong Man-Tak) continues to manipulate the system to his own advantage. 

Lam may have to play a little dirty, appealing directly to the jury and wilfully breaking court procedure to make sure they hear evidence which is otherwise inadmissible, but does so in the interest of “truth” which according to Tung has no place in a court of law. Tung may well be correct, objective truth is largely irrelevant when rhetoric and legal argument hold sway. What’s morally wrong might not actually be against the law, while doing what’s right might also get you into trouble. That’s where the jury comes in, Lam answers, as a kind of check and balance using common sense to temper cold legality and decide what might best serve a kind of moral justice rather than simply answer if an offence has been committed under the law. 

But Tung calls the jury “laymen”, implying they are too stupid to understand legal complexities and are in fact a spanner in the works of justice. He objects to the introduction of “feelings” and preaches “fairness” while manipulating the system to his own advantage. Lam catches him out by needling at his elitism, pointing out that he may think he’s an elite now that he hobnobs with the rich and powerful but in their eyes he’ll never really be their equal in a world still ruled by old money. In a case Lam presided over in which a young man was accused of stealing a pair of ready meals from a convenience store where he’d previously been employed, he asks the defendant if he thought poverty was an excuse to do whatever he wanted, irritated by his attempt to manipulate his feelings by emotionally blackmailing him in claiming the meals were for his elderly parents and only taken because his boss had not paid his wages. Nevertheless, Lam had acted in the interests of “fairness” spotting that he was being asked to repay the full price in compensation when the meals he stole were actually heavily discounted and adjusting the amount accordingly. In effect Lam does something similar in defending Jolene, asking the rich if they think their power and status puts them above the law. The Chungs at least clearly think they do, doing their best to intimidate and frustrate the course of justice. 

“Everything is wrong” Lam adds during his closing speech, decrying the influence of wealth and power not only in the judicial system but in society at large. Tung thought he could manipulate the prosecutor (Tse Kwan-Ho) in knowing him to be a stickler for letter of the law, but even he knows that sometimes you might have to break the rules to do the right thing and to apply the law incorrectly would not be in the best interests of justice. With strong comedic undertones and warmhearted charm, Ng’s farcical courtroom drama discovers that the real culprits are privilege, elitism, corruption, and ambition but that justice can be served if only we apply a little common sense. 


A Guilty Conscience is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Magnum Films Global.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Hong Kong Family (過時·過節, Eric Tsang Hing-Weng, 2022)

“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)

Ebola Syndrome (伊波拉病毒, Herman Yau, 1996)

“I’ll fuck up whoever busts my balls!” snarls the protagonist of Herman Yau’s notorious 1996 Cat III exploitation film Ebola Syndrome (伊波拉病毒), seemingly filled with internalised rage in a sense of oppression as a little guy continually at the mercy of bosses who exploit and belittle him. Then again, Kai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) is not a nice guy and his various crimes are less those of an emasculated man towards an unfair society than a sociopathic disregard for conventional human morality. 

Even so, his first act of violence is a result of his attempt at petty class rebellion by sleeping with a mob boss’ wife only for the boss to come home and ritually humiliate him by ordering his wife to pee all over his treacherous underling before threatening to cut his bits off with a pair of secateurs. Kai, however, goes crazy and uses the shears to take out the boss, the associate, and the wife, pausing as he leaves to douse their terrified little girl in petrol in an ironic piece of foreshadowing only to be interrupted before he can light a flame. 10 years later in 1996, Kai is on the run working in a Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg where he is once again oppressed and belittled by the Taiwanese manager and his wife not to mention further displaced by the complicated racial politics of mid-90s South Africa. 

A minor comment on colonial corruptions in the anxiety surrounding Hong Kong’s imminent transition, Kai and his boss Kei (Lo Meng) find themselves in a difficult position in facing discrimination from all sides. Needing meat for their restaurant, they decide to strike a deal with the local indigenous community after being insulted by a white butcher but on their arrival walk into some kind of ritual conducted over the bodies of numerous locals who each have bloody welts all over their skin. On meeting with the leader, the pair immediately rip him off while he plays a grim joke on them as they discover two human bodies in place of the pig carcasses they’d intended to buy before he returns to set them straight.

This early moment of foreshadowing has its own dark irony as Kai will eventually end up once again murdering three people he accuses of busting his balls before mincing them up and turning them into “African Char-sui Bao” hamburgers. By this point Kai is already a “super spreader” having unknowingly contracted the ebola virus after raping a near comatose indigenous woman at the waterside who vomited white liquid in his face as he climaxed. In another instance of cruel cosmic irony, Kai turns out to be one of small amount of people effectively immune recovering quickly from what seems like flu but almost certainly having infected Kei and his wife and through them anyone who ate the African Char-sui Bao which is how ebola winds up in the city and eventually travels all the way to Hong Kong after Kai cuts his losses and goes home to live the high life on Kei’s savings. 

Yau does not hold back on the gore nor on the very real terror of the ravages of ebola as a doctor gruesomely dissects a human body remarking on the disintegration of its internal organs. At this point, Kai doesn’t know ebola’s what he has or that he’s passing it on but it’s unlikely he’d care. When the truth is finally revealed he runs anarchically through the streets with a meat cleaver shouting “ebola for everyone” and spitting at passersby as if taking his revenge against humanity itself. Yet he’s ultimately a wild animal trapped in civilised society caring for nothing other than the satisfaction of his immediate needs aside from his desperation to affirm his masculinity, not to be looked down on or bullied. We see him impassively chop up live frogs and witness the heads being torn off live chickens for others to drink their blood seeing him for what he is, an urban predator with no sense of conventional human value systems. 

Even so, the film seems to suggest this breed of malicious selfishness and amorality cannot be exorcised from the contemporary society while the infection continues to spread exponentially, the film’s bleak conclusion implying that the innocent will continue to suffer while the systemic causes of the disease go unexamined. Then again, Yau approaches his material with absurdly dark humour that implies that this really is some sort of cosmic joke in which all you can really do is laugh at life’s immense cruelties. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

Table for Six (飯戲攻心, Sunny Chan, 2022)

“Wherever family is, that’s where home is” the dejected hero of Sunny Chan’s ensemble comedy Table For Six (飯戲攻心) is eventually told after struggling to keep his small family together by refusing to sell the apartment their parents left them in an old barbecue pork kitchen. Like his previous film Men on the Dragon, Chan’s tightly woven farce is a kind of delayed coming-of-age tale in which the hero realises that his familial bonds aren’t necessarily tied to a place and won’t disappear even if he has to leave it, but also the gentle celebration of food and family that has come to define the Chinese New Year movie (even if this one was delayed to the Mid-Autumn Festival for obvious reasons). 

Steve (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah) is the oldest of three brothers and a de facto father figure in the absence of their parents who have each passed away. Under the justification of obeying their late mother’s dying wish, Steve insists each of the brothers come home for dinner every night and now rarely leaves the apartment as if fiercely guarding an interior world he’s afraid he’ll one day lose. Working as a photographer from home, he ends up meeting popular Taiwanese influencer Miaow (Malaysian actress Lin Min Chen) who turns out to be one of his biggest fans and a now grown up woman who once sent him fanmail as a teenager. Miaow makes obvious romantic overtures but Steve tells her he’s not interested because he still hasn’t got over his ex Monica (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) who broke up with him three years previously. This is also a problem because unbeknownst to him middle brother Bernard (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) has been secretly dating Monica for the last six months. 

Much of the tension in the apartment stems from trying to integrate the competing desires of the brothers with their relationships as a family. Bernard and youngest brother Lung (Peter Chan Charm-Man) both want to sell the apartment for different reasons while only Steve insists on hanging on to it determined for them all to continue living together as impractical as that may be given that they are all approaching middle age. Lung quit his regular job some time ago to become a professional esports player which has further strained his relationship with longterm girlfriend Josephine (Ivana Wong Yuen-Chi) who is fed up with waiting for him to formalise their union while finding her own hopes and desires stifled by his obsession with esports success. To keep the peace Steve suggests an unusual solution in which he’ll employ Josephine as a cook which is certainly awkward on several levels given the resulting power dynamics but on the other hand not all that different from the status quo in practical terms as much as it annoys Lung who is secretly insecure in his lack of financial standing which is why he’s been putting off marriage. 

Essentially what Steve learns is that keeping the family together isn’t as literal a thing as he’d assumed it to be. If he wants to preserve it he might have to let it go and learn to move on from the past rather than stubbornly trapping himself in the inertia of his parents’ old apartment. Miaow turns out not be quite as vacuous as her online persona suggests, a neat subversion of Teorema as an unexpected guest who immediately sees and understands the unfulfilled needs of each of the family members and helps to guide them towards moments of realisation. Steve struggles to come to terms with the end of his relationship with Monica which turns out to have been caused by a minor misunderstanding while on the other hand processing complex feelings towards his brother trying to be magnanimous in the best interests of the future but on the other hand wondering if he and Monica might still have a future after all. 

Of course that does rather leave out Monica’s feelings though she too seems conflicted even if having made a choice to move on in deciding to date Bernard in the first place. Her pet peeve is that she hates it when people “disrespect” old things and can’t bear to see otherwise obsolete objects thrown away all of which suggests she might have made a mistake in moving on all while filling the apartment with relics of a disappearing Hong Kong such as old street signs and a pair of golden phoenix dragons which seem gloriously out of place in the otherwise industrial environment of the former barbecue pork kitchen. There might then be something of an additional message in Steve’s final realisation that home is where the family is in an era when so many have felt displaced and been forced to leave the place they love because it has changed beyond all recognition while he makes the decision to break out of his self-imposed inertia by moving on from the past to explore new possibilities outside of the apartment. Anarchic yet warmhearted and always forgiving of its sometimes flawed, often confused protagonists Chan’s cheerful family dramedy discovers that home is not so much a place as the people who live in it and that family is still family even if it’s far apart.


Table for Six is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Sunshine of My Life (一路瞳行, Judy Chu, 2022)

A young woman comes to a better understanding of her family and her relationship with it after a series of crises some more serious than others in Judy Chu’s semi-autobiographical drama, Sunshine of My Life (一路瞳行). More a coming-of-age tale than an exploration of the difficulties faced by those with disabilities in the recent past, Chu’s heartfelt film nevertheless stresses familial solidarity as the heroine comes to realise that her misplaced resentment is mostly teenage angst and that at the end of the day her parents just want her to be happy.

Yan (Karena Ng) was born to two parents who are each blind. A perfectly ordinary though dangerous accident that could easily happen to a sighted mother leaves a toddler Yan scalded and unkind relatives questioning the couple’s decision to have a child at all implying it is somehow irresponsible and that they are incapable of caring for her. Nevertheless, Yan’s mother Hung (Kara Wai) resolves to do everything she can to keep her daughter safe beginning with attaching bells to her so she has a better idea of where she is and what she’s doing at all times. This early incident does in one sense colour Hung’s parenting style, constantly questioning herself as to whether she’s a good mother and preoccupied with the judgement of others all of which later feeds into her teenage daughter’s resentment as the older Yan grows tired of feeling responsible for her parents’ care. 

As a child, Yan had helped her parents by reading out menus and describing the world she sees around her but as a high school student she resents having to rush home after school rather than hanging out with her friends and also seems to be ashamed of her parents’ disability never telling anyone about her family and instead claiming that her mother is ill in hospital. She tells her art teacher that she just wants to get out of Hong Kong and doesn’t care where she goes so long as it’s far away while later telling her no good rich kid boyfriend that she’s searching for “freedom”. On one level she feels intense guilt for leaving her parents behind as if she were abandoning them, worried that they really can’t manage without her, but also fears for her own future and feels trapped as if she’s being asked to sacrifice her own hopes and dreams to stay by her parents’ side forever.  

Yan is indeed a teenage girl and has a slightly self-centred way of looking at things, never quite stopping to appreciate how difficult her parents lives can be in a conservative society that is often unwilling to accommodate difference. When her classmates all mock and jeer at a poster advertising a star gazing event for the blind all she can do is smile politely, and at one point she even walks straight past Hung waiting for her outside the school gates perhaps on one level simply embarrassed to have her mother meet her as any teenage girl might be but also anxious to hide her existence from her boyfriend. After being arrested by the police for illegal street selling, Yan’s father Keung (Hugo Ng) gets a job as a masseuse but is later exploited by his employer who tries to force him to sign a new contract accepting a 20% pay cut while increasing the manager’s commission. Keung refuses and is fired but vows to fight for the other workers to end discrimination against the blind and ensure they enjoy the same labour rights as sighted workers. 

Faced with a series of crises from a brush with criminality to her boyfriend’s sudden absence and her father’s failing health, Yan is forced to reconsider her relationship with her parents. On witnessing Hung stand up for herself and take her father’s corner Yan realises that she might have underestimated her mother’s capability and what she took for dependency was more a general sense of warmth in receiving care that made her life easier. Tinged with ’90s nostalgia from the ubiquitous cassette tapes Hung uses to record precious moments to pagers and pinups, Chu’s warmhearted drama finds a mother and daughter coming to a better understanding of each other as they both learn to embrace independence and freedom if in a slightly different way than originally anticipated.


Sunshine of My Life screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵, Choi Ka-yan & Lee Hiu-ling, 2022)

“Each day is more absurd and darker than the last” a former protestor reflects, deciding to move his family abroad resolving that the only way to protect his children is to ensure they do not grow up in Hong Kong. The latest in a series of documentaries focusing on the 2019 protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling’s Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵) is among the most visceral with a potent sense of what it was like to be a young person on the ground, but is also among the least hopeful with the majority of its protagonists deciding that their only future lies in exile. 

First protagonist Yan is a law student at Chinese University who is left wondering if her studies are still relevant in the wake of the National Security Law. Rather than participating directly, she helps arrange legal representation for protestors who have been arrested by the police. AJ, meanwhile, is a young man who finds his relationship with girlfriend Jennie strained by his commitment to the protests, while the mysterious Shin Long is a frontliner who finds himself conflicted in his responsibilities while his wife is pregnant with their second child. 

Each of them seems to feel that time is running out and these are the last days of the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. The film opens with stock footage from the Handover with Chris Patten declaring that it is time for the Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong but of course that wasn’t really the case and the One Country Two Systems philosophy has been steadily eroded to the point of oblivion long before its 2047 expiry date. While some students feel it is a privilege that they have been able to voice their opinions at all let alone protest given that the same situation could not occur on the Mainland others are becoming frustrated not least because of the increasingly oppressive behaviour of the local police force. 

In one particularly impassioned moment, students at the Chinese University confront their principal begging him to issue a statement denouncing police violence but he remains impassive refusing to acknowledge any such brutality has taken place. Several students break down in tears while one young woman recounts her sexual assault at the hands of the police. Intense footage from the middle of the protests captures policemen kneeling atop students while middle-aged and older men and women step in to challenge them, asking what these young people have done so wrong as warrant this kind of treatment. AJ talks of the “solidarity of the streets”, older people in so-called “parent cars” offering free rides to protestors while others offer meals or make simple shows of support. Shin Long, however, offers darker counter of “street justice” in which the crowd turns on a young women they believe was photographing protestors demanding she hand over her phone and delete any photos fearing she will otherwise be sending them to the police. 

As the protests intensify, so does a feeling of paranoia as students are rounded up from their homes and threatened by the police. AJ is arrested and bailed but told that he’ll be sent to prison if caught at another protest, further straining his relationship with Jennie who already feels neglected by the amount of time he spends on the protest rather than with her. Like Shin Long, he feels guilty that he’s leaving a gap in the line and others may end up getting hurt because he isn’t there to protect them. But then as Shin Long points out, every time he manages to escape it’s because someone else was caught, slowing the police down and allowing him to get away. He might not always be so lucky and with a wife and soon to be two children he feels that he is being irresponsible in putting himself at so much risk. 

With the passing of the Security Law, enacted so quickly its contents were kept secret until after it was voted through, all hope is drained from each of the protagonists. AJ learns he will be going to prison for a year for having done nothing more than stand in the street and chant slogans, while Shin Long also receives a lengthy sentence resolving to raise his children abroad on his release. Jennie to decides to emigrate, leaving a dejected AJ behind alone with only painful memories and little hope for the future. A raw document of the protest movement live from the ground, City on Fire has only sympathy for its wounded protagonists but equally perhaps for a disappearing Hong Kong that in the end could not be protected. 


Hong Kong: City on Fire is in UK cinemas on 22nd November.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Executioners (現代豪俠傳, Johnnie To & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1993)

At the end of The Heroic Trio, the shadowy rise of authoritarianism seemed to have been beaten back. The three superwomen at the film’s centre had discovered joy and liberation in female solidarity and were committed to fighting injustice in a flawed but improving world. If Heroic Trio had been a defiant reaction to Handover anxiety, then sequel Executioners (現代豪俠傳) is its flip side shifting from the retro 40s Hong Kong as Gotham aesthetic to a post-apocalyptic nightmare world where nuclear disaster has normalised corporate fascist rule. 

As Ching (Michelle Yeoh) explains in her opening voiceover, a nuclear attack has ruined the city contaminating its water and leaving ordinary citizens dependent on the Clear Water Corporation for safe drinking supplies and basic sanitation. The trio have been scattered, pushed back into the roles from which they escaped at the first film’s conclusion save perhaps for Ching who continues to serve a duplicitous authority but does so with clearer eyes and a humanitarian spirit driving a medicine truck to ensure those in need have access to healthcare. Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) meanwhile has reverted to her cynical bandit lifestyle, hijacking water trucks mostly for her own gain but also ensuring the water gets to the needy. Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) has abandoned her Wonder Woman persona on the insistence of her husband who is now a high ranking policeman with the military authority devoting herself to the role of the traditional housewife and mother to her daughter Cindy. 

Though the women seem to have maintained their bond, Ching and Chat turning up for a Christmas celebration with Cindy, the political realities soon disrupt their friendship as they find themselves at odds with each other given their shifting allegiances. As in the first film, Chat has continued to accept work from dubious authority in the form of the Colonel including tracking down a man who embarrassed the police by firing a gun at a rally for a cult-like protest leader, Chung Hon (Takeshi Kaneshiro), only the gunman later turns out to be a patsy and Chat has unwittingly helped them bump off the voice of the people as an overture for a military coup. Ching is secretly working for responsible government trying to safeguard the President to prevent his assassination by the Colonel, but obviously cannot say very much about her mission arousing Tung’s suspicions that she may have been part of a plot to have her husband killed. 

In any case, the true villain turns out to be a kind of Wonder Woman mirror image in that the mysterious Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), CEO of Clear Water Corporation, is a man who wears a mask to hide his scarred face and dresses like an 18th century aristocrat as if engaged in some kind of Man in the Iron Mask cosplay. Kim and the Colonel have been collaborating to engineer a military coup by deliberately restricting water supplies. The oblivious Chung Hon had unwittingly been Kim’s stooge, stoking up public resentment about the water situation to give the government an excuse for a crackdown and the Colonel to move. Chat’s path to redemption amounts to vindicating the faint hope that the water contamination was a hoax, which she eventually does by taking Cindy with her to smash the corporate dam and return the water to its rightful flow and the people of the city. But like the Evil Master, Kim does not die so easily turning up for a surprisingly hands on fight squaring off against the barely unified trio who are only just beginning to repair their friendships on coming to a fuller understanding of the reality of their circumstances. 

They are all in a sense liberated, though less joyfully than in the first film and largely through violent loss. The good guys don’t always win and a fair few die while all the women can do is keep moving, fighting off one threat after another with few guarantees of success and not even each other to rely on. Where the first film had embraced a hopeful sense of comic camp, Executioners skews towards the nihilistic in its dystopian world of corporate overreach and increasing militarism in which the trio no longer trust each other and are each re-imprisoned inside their original cages from patriarchal social norms to capitalistic inhumanity and questionable loyalties with the only hopeful resolution resting on “the sincerity of our friendship” in a world which may be healing but is far from happy. 


Executioners screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The Heroic Trio (東方三俠, Johnnie To, 1993)

Female solidarity becomes an unexpected weapon against stealthy authoritarian take over in Johnnie To’s gloriously camp superhero action fest, The Heroic Trio (東方三俠). Uniting three of the top stars of the age in Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh the film flirts with Handover anxiety in the “Evil Religion” that threatens to steal the children of Hong Kong, but eventually locates the source of salvation in the heroine’s shared humanity brokered by a tripartite solidarity of justice and equality that defies both the patriarchal world around them and the cruel authoritarianism in which they have been raised. 

In an almost biblical allegory, large numbers of male infants have been going missing over the last 18 months and the police are, predictably, mystified relying on the reappearance of the mysterious superhero Wonder Woman to solve the mystery herself. Truth be told, top Inspector Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) hasn’t yet realised that Wonder Woman is his own wife, Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), so perhaps his investigative skills aren’t all that despite the dynamism of the opening scenes which see him demonstrate his masculinity by leaping out of a window stop a thief from driving off in his classic car which is parked outside a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Nothing really gets done until the chief of police gets a note that his own infant son is next on the list, though he briefly considers simply swapping his kid for another couple’s child while hiring “Thief Catcher” Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) to get him back when he’s kidnapped by an “Invisible Woman”, Ching (Michelle Yeoh), whom Tung manages to wound while saving the decoy baby. 

As it turns out, Ching has been taking the babies on behalf of “Evil Master” (Yen Shi-Kwan) who lives in an underground lair in the sewers and is the head of a mysterious cult hellbent on finding a new king for China. There may be a degree of Handover anxiety in Evil Master’s mission, seeking to possess and control Hong Kong by brainwashing its children eventually possessing Ching by removing her bodily autonomy while her sisters must quite literally free her from his icy grasp. Each of the kidnapped boys is said to have a divine destiny, though Evil Master doesn’t know which one is the new king and has a habit of simply killing the ones who disappoint him while the others are raised as mindless automatons consuming those like them and destined to become thoughtless killing machines like the bloodthirsty Kau (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). 

Chat, who was raised as one of Evil Master’s minions but managed to escape thanks to the largess of Ching and his since become an ultra-capitalist bounty hunter if one less cynical than she originally seems, thinks it’s better to simply end the cannibal kids’ misery before they end up like Kau while Tung prioritises saving the infants so they can be returned to their parents before being subject to one of Evil Master’s weird rituals. Ching, meanwhile, is only participating in Evil Master’s plan to protect the man she loves, a mad scientist slowly succumbing to poisoning caused by his invention in true genre fashion. It is then in a sense love that causes Ching to reject her programming, but it’s the solidarity of Tung and Chat, along with a desire for vengeance, that finally gives her the courage to rebel. 

In a brief flashback, Tung had failed to save Ching during a tough training session with their mentor who had cruelly told her that she’d have to fight for justice alone while Ching, cast out, sought support by turning to the dark side. The scene repeats itself twice in the film’s closing scenes in which Tung is this time able to save Ching but only because of the support from their friend and equal Chat making up the third point of the triangle and anchoring them both firmly to ensure they will not fall. “Life is meaningful if you can face yourself” Tung tells Ching, shedding her mask having presumably dealt with her own dark past and pulling her sister up with her as an equal leaving the past behind to fight for a future of justice and freedom. 

To and action director Ching Siu-tung recast Hong Kong as Gotham with a production design quite clearly inspired by Western comic books in which the three heroines end by getting fancy capes that flicker in the wind. Chat, a motorcycle-riding delinquent force of nature, even at one point launches herself into battle on an oil drum propelled by dynamite which she later uses to take out the cannibal kids not to mention Evil Master himself. But it turns out the spectre of creepy, ritualistic authoritarianism doesn’t die so easily, Evil Master’s charred skeleton gets back up for one last hurrah until his brain finally explodes when confronted by Ching’s rejection having returned to the fold and now ready to sacrifice herself for a freer future for all. Essentially a comic book wuxia, To’s ironic action drama allows its heroic trio to find salvation in female solidarity anchoring each other in a world beset by fear and villainy.


The Heroic Trio screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Blue Island (憂鬱之島, Chan Tze-Woon, 2022)

“In reality, we are just the abandoned kids of the riot.” an ageing protestor advises, sitting in a jail cell talking to a younger version of himself about the way that youthful revolutions fail and age erodes ideals. Chan Tze-Woon’s documentary Blue Island (憂鬱之島) places the protestors of today into the protests of the past, asking them to reenact the actions of their forebears while considering what Hong Kong means to them now and how they feel about those who simply decide to leave believing this is a battle that cannot be won. 

In a scene that seems to reference Tang Shu Shuen’s China Behind, a young couple fleeing the Cultural Revolution in 1973 attempt to reach Hong Kong by swimming, the camera then finding the same man nearly 50 years later still swimming in the bay. As one of the protestors of today puts it, he fled injustice because he could not fight it as many young Hong Kongers have also now chosen to do in the wake of the Security Law. Yet most of these young people have chosen to stay, most accepting the choice of others to leave though perhaps feeling it premature, explaining that to them Hong Kong is their home and their family. 

The old man, Chan Hak-chi, says he saw Hong Kong as a place of freedom yet it was also colonial outpost ruled by another distant and oppressive power. In a key scene a young protestor, Kelvin Tam, is charged with paying the part of a protester arrested during the anti-colonial riots of 1967. “I am Chinese” he answers the English civil servant, in English, when pressed why he resists them as someone who grew up in their colony and attended their schools, “And here belongs to China”. He tells the Englishman that this is his place and it is the Englishman who should leave. The situation then reverses, the now invisible voice on the other side of the table asking him in Cantonese “why do you oppose China?” as someone raised on Chinese soil who studied in government schools. “I’m a Hong Konger”, he replies.

The man whose shoes he’s filling is in many ways his opposite number. The riots of 1967 were led by left-leaning activists who desired a reunification with Mainland China in reaction to oppressive British colonial rule. The scenes of young people being carted off by the police are near identical, but it is true enough how identity is often constructed in opposition. The ’67 rioters declared themselves Chinese as distinct from the British, while Tam identifies himself as a Hong Konger in opposition the Chinese. Yet as Raymond Young, once a young man imprisoned for riot, points out when has Hong Kong ever been able to control its own fate? Other young protestors lament that they are offered only two conflicting narratives of their history, one which begins with British rule as if the island just popped up out of the sea in the early 19th century, and the other penned by Mainland authorities to encourage a One China philosophy.   

Now a disappointed old man, Young remarks that he no longer takes an interest in Hong Kong politics also pointing out that in order for you to love your country your country must first love you implying perhaps that he does not particularly feel loved by the Mainland. He may have something in common with Kenneth Lam who arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 after Tiananmen Square and holds up a small scarf with the innocuous message that the people will not forget now that the annual vigils that used to mark the June 4 Incident have been banned. Becoming tearful at a gathering he remarks that he has something in common with the youngsters in that they both dreamed of a better world and have experienced the “shattered faith” of a failed revolution, like Young feeling abandoned in the society he failed to change. 

Lam now works as social justice lawyer, defending many of these young people who have been arrested for vague offences such as “incitement to incite public nuisance”, “conspiring to subvert state power”, or simply “rioting”. Chan ends on a montage of faces sitting in the dock accompanied by their occupations and the “crime” with which they have been charged, some young some old, many students but also lawmakers and civl servants, delivery people, your friends and neighbours accused just for voicing an opinion. The court itself is ironically a colonial hangover in which barristers wear wigs and conduct their legal business, if not the questioning, in English. A blue island indeed, Chan ends on a note of sorry futility echoed by an extending list of credits marked only as “anonymous”. 


Blue Island screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)