The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, Wong Tin-lam, 1960)

A free-spirited nightclub singer’s dreams of love are shattered by fragile masculinity and an unforgiving society in Wong Tin-lam’s take on the classic opera Carmen, The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, yě méiguī zhī liàn). Where similar films of the era may paint the heroine’s plight as punishment for her subversion of societal norms, Wong’s musical noir implies that perhaps she was too good, too pure-hearted for the increasingly selfish and judgemental society around her while the man she loves is simply too weak to accept her transgressive femininity. 

It’s with the man, Hanhua (Chang Yang), that we first enter the world of the EW Ritz cabaret bar. An “elite” English graduate, Hanhua has fallen on hard times and unable to find teaching work has been forced to take a job he sees as sordid and degrading as a pianist in a nightclub. He and his teacher fiancée Suxin (So Fung), literally the girl next-door, joke about it outside, Hanhua asking her if she’s worried about all the “pretty bad women” in such establishments and pointing at his engagement ring as an amulet of protection against predatory femme fatales. Once inside, however, he’s instantly captivated by the alluring singer, Sijia (Grace Chang), who nevertheless takes against Hanhua because unbeknownst to him he’s displacing her regular piano player, Old Wang (Lui Tat), who’s being let go by the greedy boss for showing up late because his wife is seriously ill. 

Unable to accept such callous behaviour, Sijia tries to use her position to speak up on Wang’s behalf and almost loses her own job in the process while irritating her stage rival and the boss’ squeeze Meimei (Shen Yun). While Meimei sings a quiet romantic ballad on the dance floor, Sijia embarks on a crowd-pleasing, gender-bending routine in the bar which proves both that she is the star in this establishment and that she can bend the crowd to her will turning them on whoever she sees fit. After a fight breaks out, Hanhua finds himself physically restraining Sijia to prevent her from stabbing Meimei with an icepick. Though this originally annoys her, Sijia is quite clearly turned on watching Hanhua fight off all of the other men who rose up to defend her honour. Once he is wounded, she again asserts her authority by calling them off and proceeding to flirt with Hanhua who leaves with Suxin vowing never to return. 

But as Old Wang had said, it’s tough to find a job these days and faced with his mother’s excitement about his new career prospects Hanhua has no choice but continue working at the Ritz. We can perhaps tell something of Hanhua’s background from the interior of his home which though modest has a large classical portrait on one wall and is otherwise neat and well organised. He evidently envisaged a conventional middle-class life for himself and is humiliated to have been reduced to a mere piano player in a backstreet bar, the kind of place that he sees as sordid and dangerous and would not ordinarily think of himself visiting. He sees Sijia in much the same way but perhaps stops short of admitting her danger, refusing to look at her or only with contempt while furiously denying his barely controlled desires of the kind which were perhaps unleashed by the fight at the bar. 

Yet all the qualities which attract her to him are the ones he eventually wants to destroy in her rebellious goodness and refusal to follow the unjust rules of her society. She tells him point blank not only in her song but repeatedly to his face that she is a fickle woman who believes there are no good men and is essentially in this only for a good time for as long as it lasts. In fact, her interest in him largely stemmed from a bet with a guy at the bar that she couldn’t seduce him in 10 days, stung by his rough rejection of her after the fight. But Hanhua is too conventional a man to understand or accept her. He gives in to his desires after discovering that she slept with a rich man only to get the money for a life saving operation for Old Wang’s wife, witnessing her self-sacrificing goodness and therefore deciding that she is “worthy” of him after all. Ultimately he expects her to play the role of a conventional housewife, refusing to allow her to continue singing in nightclubs even while he is unable to find another job having served time in prison for bludgeoning her abusive ex. His fragile masculinity had also caused him to blow up at Suxin when she went to the headmaster at her school and asked him to give Hanhua a less degrading job, humiliated to have a woman beg for him just he is humiliated to be supported by Sijia and especially by her doing a job he thinks is somehow improper. 

It is not Sijia who ruins Hanhua, but Hanhua himself and the toxicity of conventional social codes that feed into his sense of resentment. His obsessive desire to possess Sijia, to dominate and tame her, drives him to drink and uselessness to the point he completely degrades himself, pathetically pleading with Sijia not to leave, prepared to allow her to return to work or even take other lovers if only she does not abandon him. Sijia meanwhile is in a sense tamed by her love for Hanhua in that she decides that love is sacrifice, that she must live a more conventionally proper life as Hanhua’s wife and eventually that she must separate from him in order to preserve his future. In this she is redeemed in the eyes of Suxin and Hanhua’s mother who realise that she is a good woman who genuinely cared for Hanhua, but is finally done in by her goodness. Her morality cares nothing for properness and all for humanity, her kindness to Old Wang and her best friend eventually repaid while all Hanhua can think of is a redemption of his masculinity through violence driven just like Don José to the peak of madness in obsessive love. But there’s more than just inevitable tragedy in Sijia’s fate, there is a deep sense of injustice and that Hanhua’s actions were as much about stifling her transgressive goodness as they were about vindicating himself as a man which in any case is only pathetic in its unrighteousness. Masterful in its musicality, Wong’s romantic noir positions its heroine as dangerous but only because she is better than the world around her and the world around her knows but does not want to see. 


The Wild, Wild Rose screens in Amsterdam on 27th/29th/31st October as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

The Narrow Road (窄路微塵, Lam Sum, 2022)

An earnest middle-aged man and a cynical young woman become unlikely friends in pandemic-era Hong Kong in Lam Sum’s melancholy drama, The Narrow Road (窄路微塵). The narrow road is indeed the line they have to walk as they find their already precarious lives straitened by the increasing pressures of life under corona with few possibilities open to them other than to trust in each other and discover unexpected solidarity in their contradictory approaches to life. 

As a customer later suggests, some might say the pandemic is good for those like Chak (Louis Cheung) who runs a one man cleaning business, turning up after hours to disinfect cafes and offices which are still technically open but forced to close early because of the current restrictions. But as we can see Chak is exhausted and his faithful van which has the logo of his company proudly emblazoned on the side is on its last legs. He lives a simple life with his elderly mother who suffers with arthritis but is afraid of the expense of going to the doctor and seems to find joy only in the vague hope of getting lucky on the horses or else the lottery. 

A good-hearted man, Chak’s philosophy is life in that if you work hard and do everything properly then you’ll be alright. Hoping to take advantage of an increase in trade he takes on a young single mother, Candy (Angela Yuen), as an assistant but her outlook is the polar opposite of his as he discovers on spotting her pilfering ice cream bars from a convenience store after the clerk told her the discount had expired because she arrived a new moments after midnight. Cynical because of her experiences, Candy doesn’t see why she or her daughter should go without just because they don’t have money when some have so much they’d hardly notice a little missing, nor does she see the problem with cutting corners when it’s not like anyone notices anyway but Chak points out he’d know and wouldn’t like to feel as if he’d cheated someone or broken his word. 

But then desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Chak’s cleaning business is as reliant on a circulating economy as any other as he discovers when the disinfectants he needs for his work are on backorder from a supplier because of pandemic-related delays. When the pair are dispatched to clean up after a lonely death, it plunges Candy into a moment of existential crisis if the result of life is ending up as a stain on someone’s floor to be washed away by a stranger who is themselves faceless and invisible, merely “a cleaner”. As the pair work at night when no one else is around, it’s as if these properties are cleaned by magic, sparkling and new the next day, when the reality is that their work is more important than ever in ensuring public safety not to mention allowing other people to continue operating their businesses confident that they’re doing everything they can to protect their customers.  

In a poignant moment, Candy looks out at the beautiful view from a child’s bedroom in a wealthy family’s apartment and reflects that her living space does not even have a window. Her small daughter Chu eventually draws a picture of one they stick on the wall behind makeshift curtains making do with only the illusion of the light and air they have so far been denied because of their poverty. The world around them seems to be shrinking with businesses across the city closing their doors for good while those with the means to do so are choosing to go abroad for obvious political reasons hoping to start again somewhere else. Chak can only do his best to ride the waves and when even that isn’t possible to keep looking forward even if it means settling for what the moment allows while trying not to let it make him cynical or resentful. The world’s messed up but you don’t have to be, he tries to tell Candy, reminding her that children are sponges and that the lessons she’s teaching her daughter might not serve her well in adulthood. “You’ll hate me when you’re grown up” Candy concedes on doing another midnight flight to another “temporary” situation albeit one which does at least come with a window.

Still as Chak says, they might be smaller than dust but if God doesn’t see them it doesn’t matter as long as they see each other echoing the film’s central message of togetherness and solidarity not just amid the difficult background of the pandemic but as a philosophy for life. Lam’s unshowy yet poetic and beautifully lensed photography captures the sense of shrinking isolation in the early days of COVID-19 while subtly contrasting the fortunes of those like Chak and Candy living in tiny airless spaces who are forced to risk their lives with those who their labour protects. “Are poor people sentenced to death?” Candy asks and forces a concession that perhaps they are by the vagaries of an unfeeling, increasingly capitalistic society. 


The Narrow Road screens in Chicago on Oct. 29 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生, Danny Lee Sau-Yin & Billy Tang Hin-Shing, 1992) [Fantasia 2022]

“Every good man should get revenge” the young protagonist of Danny Lee Sau-Yin and Billy Tang Hin-Shing’s depraved Cat III shocker Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生) is told though as will become apparent, he is not a good man and if his heinous crimes are born of vengeance the target may remain indistinct. Long available only in a censored version which perhaps helped to create its gruesome reputation, the film like others in the early ‘90s Cat III boom is based on a real life case, that of taxi driver Lam Kor-wan who murdered four female passengers before being caught by police when an assistant at a photo shop alerted them to the disturbing quality of the negatives he had brought in to be developed. 

As such, the film is not a procedural. It begins with the arrest of a man here called Lin Gwao-yu (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) who claims the negatives are not his and that he brought them in on behalf of a friend named Chang (which is also coincidentally the name of the half-brother he continues to resent). On investigating the flat where he lives with his father, half-siblings, and niece, the police realise that Gwao-yu is in indeed a serial killer and the rest of the film is divided into a series of flashbacks as they try to convince him to confess and reveal how and why he committed these crimes the last of which he actually videoed himself doing. 

Nevertheless, the police themselves are depicted not quite as bumbling but certainly not much better than the criminals they prosecute in their own lust for violence, savagely beating Gwao-yu who refuses to speak in order to force him to confess. Fat Bing (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) is portrayed as a particularly bad example, encouraging the other cops to play cards rather than focus on their stakeout of the photo shop almost allowing Gwao-yu to escape and then titillated by the more normal pinups and glamour shots pinned to Gwao-yu’s wardrobe as well as some of the less normal ones before realising that the women in them are dead. There is some original controversy over whether they should be investigating at all given that taking weird pictures of nude women is not in itself illegal while the misogynistic attitudes of the police are carried over onto one of their own officers who is forced to play the part of the victim during a re-enactment and is later struck by a stray body part as a result of Fat Bing’s crime scene incompetence. One of the murders even takes place directly outside a police box where the victim had tried to ask for help but got no reply.

Pressed for a reason for his crimes Gwao-yu offers only that all but the last of his victims were bad women who deserved die, each in a repeated motif fatalistically colliding with his cab and crawling inside having had too much to drink. Flashbacks to his childhood place the blame on his wicked step-mother’s rejection along with that of his siblings while his father alone defends him if somewhat indifferently, describing him as merely “curious” on catching Gwao-yu voyeuristically spying on he and his wife having sex and disowning him only on discovering that he has also been abusing his niece who is strangely the only member of the family who seems to be fond of him. Yet it’s also this problematically incestuous living environment that has facilitated his crimes. Gwao-yu takes the bodies home to play with and dismember having the house to himself during the day because he works nights while continuing to share a pair of bunk beds with the brother he hates at the age of 28 either unwilling or unable to get a place of his own on a taxi driver’s earnings. Aside from his brother noticing a strange smell, the family who all think him weird anyway apparently remain oblivious to Gwao-yu’s crimes despite the jars containing body parts he keeps in a locked cupboard along with disturbing photographs of his dark deeds. Nevertheless it’s their police-sanctioned beating of him which eventually provokes his confessions. 

Set off by rainy nights, Gwao-yu twitches, gurns, and howls like a dog leering at his victims like a predatory wolf. In the police interrogation scenes he continues with his strange, dancelike movements as if in a trance reliving his crimes. The truth is that the police had not really investigated the disappearances of the women he killed, had no clue a serial killer was operating, and would not have caught Gwao-yu if it were not for his own lack of interest in not being caught in taking the photos to be developed publicly despite claiming to have the ability to have simply developed them himself while videoing his brutal treatment of one victim’s body and his disturbing “wedding night” with another. A final scene of Inspector Lee visiting Gwao-yu in prison visually references Clarice’s first visit to Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs which might go someway to explaining the title which is otherwise perhaps ironic in Gwao-yu’s ritualistic use of a scalpel and specimen jars. In any case for all its lurid, disturbing content the film has a strange beauty in its atmospheric capture of a neon-lit Hong Kong stalked as it is by an almost palpable evil. 


Dr. Lamb screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is available on blu-ray in the US courtesy of Unearthed Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者, Wong Jing, 1982) [Fantasia 2022]

A former mercenary’s bid for revenge having failed in his responsibilities soon goes awry in Wong Jing’s third directorial feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者). As is constantly pointed out to the hero, perhaps he’s not so different from his target with his very selective brand of justice and morality. After all maybe the difference between medicine smuggler and drug trafficker is largely semantic and taking revenge after the fact hardly makes up for the failure to protect the innocent from a world you’ve helped create. 

Li Lok (Ti Lung) is a pretty big figure on the underworld scene and as the ultra macho title sequence reveals a former mercenary who served in Vietnam. In the daring opening scene he sneaks into a gang hideout disguised as a telephone repairman and takes out a gangster in the middle of drugging a young woman whom he and his friend intend to rape and then murder. But Li Lok isn’t here to save the girl and in fact he doesn’t. He’s there because the gangster has done this kind of thing before and the previous victim was his 15-year-old niece whose care he had been entrusted with by his late brother before he passed away. Later one of his comrades will make a similar request of him and he will fail again apparently taking little stock of his responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, having knocked off the gangster annoys local big boss Shen who intends to have Li Lok eliminated but Hong Kong’s richest woman Ho Ying (Candice Yu On-On) convinces him not to because she has a job for Lok assassinating a top Thai assassin who killed her father and is now apparently blackmailing her with a cassette tape full of corporate secrets. All Lok needs to do is round up a posse and head to Cambodia where “the devil” Naiman (Ching Miao) is hiding out, kidnap him, and retrieve the tape to receive a massive life-changing payout while permanently getting Shen off his back. It all sounds like a pretty good deal to Lok along with the former buddies he recruits to join him who are all trapped in desperate poverty one with a sick little girl who desperately needs a kidney transplant. 

This is a Wong Jing film and perhaps there’s no need to dig too deeply into it, but there is something in the power Ying wields over Lok and his team by virtue of her wealth and privilege that speaks to the city’s growing inequality though it’s also true that perhaps the guys have all fallen low through their mercenary choices and are now unable to get a foothold in the contemporary society without resorting to crime. Yet perversely, Ying leverages Lok’s chivalrous sense of honour as part of her plan playing damsel in distress rather than dangerous femme fatale while he assumes he’s on a righteous mission planning to turn Naiman over to the authorities rather than just killing him while little caring that his actions threaten to destabilise an already chaotic situation in Cambodia. 

When one of the sworn brothers of the gangster that Lok killed in revenge is killed coming after him even after the truce, Lok is irritated that he died unnecessarily as if it offends his sense of justice that this man was not protected better by Shen. Yet as Naiman keeps pointing out to him, he’s no saint and perhaps no different. He could have saved the girl in the gang hideout but chose not to, escaping by jumping out of a window onto a van waiting below and riding off on a motorcycle (which is admittedly impressive). He claims to hate drug dealers but profited off war and misery in smuggling medicines across the border from Thailand into Cambodia even if he could tell himself he was running a kind of humanitarian service. Meanwhile Ying who is obviously involved in something shady if she’s dealing with people like Lok and his team, paying for their weapons and equipment which presumably includes the series of identical outfits the guys sport like some violent middle-aged boy band, wins an Outstanding Woman award and ironically pledges to use some of her wealth to fund community-based anti-drug programs. 

Li Lok may in a sense emerge victorious but also exactly where he started in failing to protect an innocent girl from a mercenary world. The Cantonese title might more literally be something like Devil Hunters, but Lok and his guys are certainly a mercenary bunch desperate to escape their poverty and hopelessness even if they may stand for a kind of justice and honour in brotherhood. This being a Wong Jing film there is plenty of crass humour including some that is very of its time along with gratuitous sex and female nudity but also a series of incredibly impressive action scenes and a bleaker than bleak conclusion which may suggest that the Loks of the world will be unable to protect the next generation from the violence they themselves have unleashed. 


Mercenaries from Hong Kong screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個, Kearen Pang, 2022)

A middle-aged woman finds her desire to take back her life after the failure of her marriage frustrated by her teenage son’s resentment and the lingering patriarchal social codes of the contemporary society in Kearen Pang’s familial dramedy Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個). The “affair” of the title is an ironic take on her new maternal relationship with a young man she takes under her wing framing it as in a way cheating on her son which is clearly the way he feels about it, while it’s clear that some still view her desire to find fulfilment outside of her role as a wife and mother as a betrayal of her family. 

Before her son was born, Mei-fung (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) was a top talent manager at a record label but gave up her job at her husband’s insistence after suffering a miscarriage. With her son, Jonathan (Jer Lau of boyband Mirror), about to graduate high school and hoping to get into Cambridge University, she decides to re-enter the world of work but soon discovers that those she once helped in their careers are not necessarily keen to repay the favour. An old associate more or less laughs her out of the room suggesting she’s simply too old for the music business and recommends she join another old friend at his music company which turns out to be a school for small children. She takes the job anyway and quickly bonds with the two younger employees who introduce her to Fang Ching (Keung To of boyband Mirror), a young man with a prodigious talent for song and dance that has Mei-fung thinking of getting back into the management game.  

Though Jonathan had mostly reacted with indifference to his mother’s decision to return to work, claiming that he’d long wanted more independence anyway, he can’t seem to let go of a sense of resentment towards Ching which is compounded by his confusion surrounding the status of his parents’ marriage which it seems had long gone cold. His father Yan has moved out and though Jonathan doesn’t know it is having a baby with an old friend of his mother’s all of which informs his feelings of displacement as if he’s been pushed out of the family circle fearing that Mei-fung has gone out and got herself a new son who admittedly seems to appreciate her more. Displaced from his own family by tragic circumstances, Ching does indeed value the small things Jonathan has begin to resent in teenage angst yet is also unexpectedly sensitive and mindful of the ways in which his relationship with Mei-fung and presence in the household may be affecting Jonathan who is still struggling to come to terms with his parents’ decision to end their marriage without even really telling him. 

In an another ironic note it’s Mei-fung’s maternity which is positioned as her key strength as a manager, quietly lending support and encouragement that allows Ching to reach his full potential. On Ching’s arrival to the studio a mother had come in to the school with her young son who was bawling his eyes out because he wanted to join a dance class but the mother wouldn’t let him because she said he was too fat and would only embarrass himself only to be proved wrong when Ching invites him to try out on the dance floor demonstrating both the damage that can be done by a judgmental parent and the positive influence of an actively supportive environment. While Mei-fung keeps telling Jonathan he needs to learn to look after himself, she patiently nurtures Ching and eventually encourages to him sort out his complicated feelings towards his family while helping him achieve his dreams as an artist. 

In some ways, Mei-fung never really transcends the role of mother or escapes the tendency to define her role in relation to the two boys while somewhat resentful of all she was forced to give up because of the patriarchal, authoritarian mindset of the husband who later left her for a younger woman. Jonathan and Ching eventually sort things out through a good old fashioned fist fight generating a kind of brotherhood that leaves each of them equally displaced but also finding firmer footing more secure in their roles and relationships. “No one can handle everything alone” Ching wisely advises, as each of the trio develops a kind of independence founded on mutual solidarity, Mei-fung reclaiming her right to an individual life while giving each of the boys the courage to go off and pursue their destinies through the superpower of maternal love. 


Mama’s Affair is in UK cinemas from 19th August courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Legendary in Action! (大俠Action!, Justin Cheung & Li Ho, 2022)

An unsuccessful film director looks for new opportunities in gaining closure with the past in Justin Cheung and Li Ho’s behind the scenes comedy, Legendary in Action! (大俠Action!). Echoing classic wuxia, the film finds its heroes searching for themselves while on a quest to revitalise the Hong Kong film scene in which they must battle unscrupulous investors, idol stars with limited acting experience, divided loyalties, the changing nature of the industry, and the ghosts of wuxia’s past. 

40-ish Tiger (Bill “Tiger” Cheung) made a big splash in his earlier career but when his first feature flopped he discovered that second chances are hard to come by in the contemporary film industry. Since then, he’s been making a living shooting sleazy shorts for live streamers while privately dying inside. When a mysterious investor turns up wanting to make a retro wuxia, Tiger is the perfect fit. Shopping an old script he’d written to provide an ending to a serial he loved as a child which was abruptly cancelled, he sets about fulfilling his childhood dream even recruiting the original star to reprise his role but soon finds out that the past is not so easily resurrected. 

This fact is brought home to him by irascible former action star Master Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) who constantly reminds him that it wasn’t like this in his day usually because they had no health and safety regulations or working rights. Yet Master Dragon is also in a sense in search of himself in that he has begun suffering with dementia and is no longer able to separate fantasy from reality. Far too into his role, he ignores the script and attacks the actors playing bad guys for real but cannot quite recall his signature move while insisting on completing dangerous stunts by himself. He’d also insisted on trying to find the original actress to play the romantic lead, but finally settles for a feisty young woman, Greta (Wiyona Yeung), who is mostly in it for the cash but gradually warms to Master Dragon happy to know that someone cared for her after he waded in on her behalf when she was bullied by lecherous customers at the bar where she was working. 

Tiger meanwhile finds himself failing in his responsibilities as a husband and soon-to-be father, pouring everything into the film while neglecting his long-suffering wife who asks him why he thought now was a good time for his one last chance. When the shoot enters a crisis, he signs up for even more “meaningless” shorts and onerous employment contracts to get the money together to finish while asking his cast and crew to do the same, each of them facing their various issues while coming together as a team squaring off against the vagaries of the independent cinema scene.

Then again, Tiger doesn’t seem to have learned much about work life balance. Nor is Master Dragon a particularly good influence instructing those around him that if film is not their lives’ work, they shouldn’t be doing it. Master Dragon is on his own journey trying to reclaim his former self while dealing with the past just as Tiger is himself trying to bring something full circle in giving his childhood favourite the ending it deserves. In a closing speech, he aligns his struggles with those of the Hong Kong film industry in general positing the wuxia serial as a symbol of faded glory while implying that the contemporary film industry has run out of steam. “At some point we lost faith in Hong Kong Cinema”, he laments, complaining about rubbish films with bad scripts and terrible production values while praising the efforts of the crazy people who give their all to make them. 

“I won’t accept fate” he goes on, like the hero of a classic wuxia fighting for justice in an unjust world while insisting that it is possible to turn things around and restore the glory of Hong Kong film. Then again, as much as his film seems to bring closure and present a place from which to move forward perhaps its unwise to look for new directions in attempting to recreate the past rather than finding new ways to bring it with you into a more positive future. 


Legendary in Action! screens at Lincoln Center 17th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © Marigold Project

Chilli Laugh Story (闔家辣, Coba Cheng, 2022)

Family gatherings can sometimes be a little spicy, but channeling some of that passion into a family business eventually becomes too hot to handle for the ambitious hero of Coba Cheng’s New Year comedy Chilli Laugh Story (闔家辣). Set during the pandemic, the film finds its young hero embracing his lifelong dream of becoming an entrepreneur while giving his parents something to do so they won’t be bothering him but eventually discovering that the business world can be cruel and it’s family who will be there for you in the end if it all goes wrong.

At 24, Coba (Edan Lui) lives with his parents in a rented flat and has a job as a concert promoter which is obviously suffering under the ever changing COVID-19 regulations. Though as a child he’d hated his mother’s hot sauce, he soon realises he’s on to an ideal business opportunity seeing as restaurants are closed and more people are eating at home without easy access to fiery condiments. With his mum Rita (Gigi Leung Wing-Kei) chopping chillies and garlic and his dad Alan (Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei) trying not to get in the way, Coba concentrates on the branding and creates an online sensation with their “Chiu Chiu Chiu” chilli sauce inspired by a local recipe from Rita’s hometown. But while the business begins to take off relationships between the family members suffer under the strain of their differing goals and aspirations. 

Coba’s big thing has been that he doesn’t see the point in owning property and is content with renting, whereas all his mother ever talks about is buying their own place. What she sees as security and freedom, Coba sees as a burden he doesn’t want to be saddled with tied down by a 30-year mortgage. Her plan is to get a loan in Coba’s name to take advantage of a preferential rate for first time buyers, the parents having previously owned a flat they were forced to sell, even if that means applying for one without actually telling him. They are all keeping secrets from each other, Coba choosing not to disclose that he lost his concert gig and is concentrating on the business, while eccentric auntie Wendy (Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu) suffers something similar when her son, who rarely has time to talk, abruptly tells her he’s moving abroad and may not return. Meanwhile, Rita had been using her sister’s restaurant kitchen as a cover to get around licensing regulations but their success puts them at odds with their siblings who resent not being included in the business or its profits. 

Part of Coba’s desire for success to is assert his independence, yet he learns a cruel lesson after being offered an opportunity to collaborate with a weird corporate Guru who speaks only in English and offers pithy maxims while completing a giant all-white jigsaw puzzle in his minimalist all white room. His best friends from school are rich kids who ended up accidental CEOs in the family business, and he desperately wants that kind of approval talking big about being able to buy a flat for his mum with cash to avoid being saddled with the mortgage while hustling in the local food scene trying to talk an old man running a hotdog cafe into collaborating on a chilli dog to expand the brand only for the old man to tell him he’s too old to be jumping on the next new trend. 

Annoyed with his parents for cost cutting behind his back and making his decisions for him by applying for loans in his name, what Coba comes to realise is that having no plan isn’t always a bad thing because it means there are plenty of opportunities while the family strengthen their bonds after a little mutual honesty respecting each other’s wishes and responsibilities in acknowledging they didn’t need to monetise their connection to make it meaningful. Family is after all what New Year comedy is all about. Peppered with references to the pandemic, Cheng’s familial dramedy is full of the anarchic humour the New Year movie is known for from random gags to crazy puns and even throws in a couple of unexpected cameos from major stars in its closing sequences but clearly has its heart in the right place as the family learns to find the sweetness in the spice and Cobo new directions for his future.


Chilli Laugh Story opens in UK cinemas on 15th July courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

July Rhapsody (男人四十, Ann Hui, 2002)

“Not every ending fulfils your expectations” a weary mother advises her son sharing long buried family secrets which will at least set them free if not perhaps happily. Scripted by Ivy Ho, Ann Hui’s July Rhapsody (男人四十) is as the Chinese title “a man at 40” implies a film about mid-life crises and quiet desperation as a middle-aged school teacher begins to resent the loss of his youth while transgressively drawn to a free-spirited student. 

Lam (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) describes himself as “stiff”, a “boring” man who teaches Chinese literature to disinterested students while privately consumed by a sense of inferiority observing with envy the yachts that litter the horizon on a trip to the beach with his son. At a reunion dinner he gets up with irritation when one of his former classmates now a wealthy financier tries to pay the bill for everyone insisting on paying his own way while perhaps exposing the sense of belittlement he feels around his more successful friends. His wife Ching (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) questions his decision pointing out that even if he could afford to pay his bit perhaps his friend Yue (Eric Kot Man-Fai) couldn’t and would feel equally insulted should Lam simply agree to pay his share too. To add insult to injury, one of his friends also wants to hire him to tutor his young son in classical Chinese poetry which leaves him feeling somewhat humiliated but on the other hand not wanting to turn the money down. 

These feelings of dissatisfaction with the way his life has turned out only intensify as he reaches the age of 40 and begins to feel his options narrowing wondering if this is really all there is. He and Ching recall a melancholy poem they learnt at school in which a scholar on a boat laments “the limitations of life” only for the poem to be ironically cut short when the couple’s younger son, Stone, comes to fetch his mum because the soup is boiling dry. Even without knowledge of the final revelations told in a two part story divided between a mother and a father to a son, we can gather that Lam married extremely young and became a father soon after. He studied at night school and became a teacher as a steady job to provide for his family and perhaps to a degree resents them for limiting his choices. His classmates, aside from Yue, all went on to find more lucrative careers while he lives in a small two bed flat snapping at his wife that he’s unlikely to find the money to buy a bigger one. 

When he irritably tells her a tube of glue they bought is “all dried up” it sounds like an insult and a way of describing their moribund relationship. Beginning to bond with free-spirited high school girl Wu (Karena Lam Ka-Yan), Lam initiates intimacy with Ching but then turns away leaving her lonely and disappointed. She meanwhile explains to him that a figure from their past whom he seems to resent has become ill and is all alone. She would like to care for him but only with Lam’s consent which he gives but grudgingly. Talking to her son, Ching admits that she isn’t sure if she’s helping this man out of pity or because she simply wants to see him suffer given the effect he has had on her life. Similarly Lam later confesses to Wu that he may have befriended Yue because he was a poor student and unpopular. At his side, Lam was always going to look good bearing out his sense of insecurity in wanting to be seen as the best, idolising his Chinese literature teacher and desperate for his praise only to find himself ironically echoing his transgressions in allowing himself to be seduced by a student. 

Ironically enough, Lam tells his son that he became a teacher because he sat behind Ching in class and wanted to stand out front so that he could see her face. Wu represents for him that same innocent teenage romance, but also a sense of the path not taken in her free-spiritedness and confidence. Lam followed the conventional path, did everything right, and now he’s unhappy. Wu rejects education and goes straight into business, supported by a wealthy father, planning to go travelling in India to look for new stock for her shop. His sons too perhaps echo his conflicting desires, Ang the older studious and responsible, and the younger Stone (changing his name to the cooler “Rocky”) uninterested in his studies. The melancholy poem which frequently recurs hints at a parting while husband and wife each attempt to resolve something but are left only with uncertainty and perhaps tragically in opposing positions in considering the further course of their lives. 

This very literary drama is related in a series of stories, Lam’s told to his son first in person and then in a letter, followed by Ching’s and the constant stream of classical Chinese poetry that floods the screen guiding the couple towards the expanse of the Yangtze River. As Ching had said, not every ending fulfils your expectations because in the end life is not so neatly packaged. There may be no real accommodation with middle-aged disappointment but there may be new ways forward to be found in resolving the traumatic past.


July Rhapsody screens at Garden Cinema, London on 10th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Comrades, Almost a Love Story (甜蜜蜜, Peter Chan, 1996)

“Fate brings people together, no matter how far” according to a wise old chef in early ‘90s New York. He’s not wrong though Peter Chan’s seminal 1996 tale of fated romance Comrades, Almost a Love Story (甜蜜蜜) is in its own way also about partings, about the failure of dreams and the importance of timing in the way time seems to have of spinning on itself in a great shell game of interpersonal connection. But then, it seems to say, you get there in the end even if there wasn’t quite where you thought you were going. 

As the film opens, simple village boy from Northern China Xiaojun (Leon Lai Ming) arrives in Hong Kong in search of a more comfortable life intending to bring his hometown girlfriend Xiaoting (Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu) to join him once he establishes himself. His first impressions of the city are not however all that positive. In a letter home, he describes the local Cantonese speakers as loud and rude, and while there are lots of people and cars there are lots of pickpockets too. It’s in venturing into a McDonald’s, that beacon of capitalist success, that he first meets Qiao (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk), a cynical young woman hellbent on getting rich who nevertheless decides to help him by whispering in Mandarin realising he doesn’t understand the menu. Hailing from Guangdong, Qiao can speak fluent Cantonese along with some English and thus has much better prospects of succeeding in Hong Kong but takes Xiaojun under wing mostly out of loneliness though accepting a kickback to get him into an English language school where she piggybacks on lessons while working as a cleaner. Bonding through the music of Teresa Teng, they become friends, and then lovers, but Xiaojun still has his hometown girlfriend and Qiao still wants to get rich. 

As we later learn in one of the film’s many coincidences, Xiaojun and Qiao arrived on the same train if facing in different directions. Hong Kong changes each of them. When Xiaojun eventually manages to bring Xiaoting across the border, he’s no longer the simple village boy he was when he arrived while Qiao struggles with herself in her buried feelings for Xiaojun unwilling to risk the vulnerability of affection but visibly pained when confronted by Xiaojun’s responsibility to Xiaoting. She finds her mirror in tattooed gangster Pao (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai) who, like her, shrinks from love and is forever telling her to find another guy but is obviously hoping she won’t as afraid of settling as she is. 

For each of them this rootlessness is born of searching for something better yet the irony is as Xiaojun says that Hong Kong is a dream for Mainlanders, but the Mainland is not a dream for most in Hong Kong who with the Handover looming are mainly looking to leave for the Anglophone West. Qiao’s early business venture selling knock off Teresa Teng tapes fails because only Mainlanders like Teresa Teng so no-one wants to buy one and accidentally out themselves in a city often hostile to Mandarin speakers as Xiaojun has found it to be. What they chased was a taste of capitalist comforts, Qiao literally working in a McDonald’s and forever dressed in Mickey Mouse clothing which Pao ironically imitates by getting a little Mickey tattooed on his back right next to the dragon’s mouth. But when they eventually end up in the capitalist homeland of New York, a driver chows down on a greasy, disgustingly floppy hamburger while Qiao finds herself giving tours of the Statue of Liberty to Mainland tourists in town to buy Gucchi bags who tell her she made a mistake to leave for there are plenty of opportunities to make money in the new China. 

Ironically enough it’s hometown innocence that brings them back together. The ring of Xiaojun’s bicycle bell catches Qiao’s attention though she’d thought of it as a corny and bumpkinish when he’d given her rides on it in their early days in Hong Kong. Xiaojun had in fact disposed of it entirely when Xiaoting arrived partly for the same reason and partly because it reminded him of Qiao. The pair are reunited by the death of Teresa Teng which in its own way is the death of a dream and of an era but also a symbol of their shared connection, Mainlanders meeting again in this strange place neither China nor Hong Kong, comrades, almost lovers now perhaps finally in the right place at the right time to start again. Peter Chan’s aching romance my suggest that the future exists in this third space, rejecting the rampant consumerist desire which defined Qiao’s life along with the wholesome naivety of Xiaojun’s country boy innocence, but finally finds solid ground in the mutual solidarity of lonely migrants finding each other again in another new place in search of another new future. 


Comrades, Almost a Love Story screens at Soho Hotel, London on 9th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – Tian Mi Mi

Tales from the Occult (失衡凶間, Fruit Chan, Fung Chih-Chiang, Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang, 2022)

A collection of Hong Kongers contend with the hidden horrors of the contemporary society in the first instalment in a series of anthology horror films, Tales from the Occult (失衡凶間,). Veterans Fruit Chan and Fung Chih-Chiang are accompanied by Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang making his directorial debut as the three directors each tackle lingering terrors as the protagonists of the three chapters are quite literally haunted by past transgressions from a pop singer on the edge consumed with guilt over a teenage trauma, to a sleazy financial influencer who might inadvertently have killed a hundred people, and the denizens of a rundown tenement who are too afraid to report a possibly dangerous presence to the police lest it damage the property value of their flats. 

In Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang’s opening instalment The Chink, a carefree high school girl chasing a stray cat stumbles on the body of a burglar who apparently fell from the rooftops and was trapped in a tiny cavity between two buildings. Some years later Yoyi (Cherry Ngan) has become a successful pop star but is still haunted by her failure to report the body to the police all those years ago worried that perhaps if she had he might have been saved though he had obviously been dead for some time when she found him. Her kindly psychiatrist uncle Ronald (Lawrence Cheng Tan-shui) tries to assuage her anxiety but fails to consider that there might actually be a dark presence in her new flat. Meanwhile, she’s also under considerable stress given that she’s in an ill-defined relationship with Alan, her married manager, who eventually brands her “mentally unstable”, and she’s somehow oblivious to the fact her high school best friend is clearly in love with her. Even so, as it turns out, perhaps you can also be haunted by the living while there are some threats that even the most well-meaning of psychiatrists is ill-equipped to cure. 

It’s ironic in a sense that Yoyi was provided with her new apartment as a path towards an illusionary freedom which is really only a means for Alan to exert greater control over her life while the heroine of Fung Chih-Chiang’s final sequence The Tenement has in a sense chosen seclusion in installing herself in a moribund tenement block in order to concentrate on her writing. The contrast between the two buildings couldn’t be more stark but even the tenement dwellers are paranoid about house prices while assuming the creepy, water-drenched presence encountered by author of pulpy internet novels Ginny (Sofiee Ng Hoi Yan) is an attempt by developers to scare them out of their homes amid Hong Kong’s horrifyingly competitive housing market. Still, like Yoyi they are each haunted by past transgressions but pinning the blame on former gangster Frankie Ho (Richie Jen) who was once accused of drowning a man. What began as a haunting soon descends into farce as they realise the “water ghost” seems to be a young woman who has passed away in their stairwell and decide to “dispose” of her with Frankie’s help to avoid a scandal destroying the value of their homes. But then, all is not quite as it seems as the sudden appearance of a journalist investigating a scandalous “love crime” makes clear. 

Fruit Chan’s middle chapter Dead Mall also takes aim at internet investigators and dodgy “influencers” as sleazy financial snake oil vlogger Wilson (Jerry Lamb) fetches up at a shopping centre surrounded by shoppers in masks to advertise that the mall is actually doing fine despite the economic downturn produced by the pandemic which he describes as worse than that of SARS. In reality the mall is “dead” with barely any customers and rows of shuttered stores, Wilson is simply doing a paid post in an attempt to raise its fortunes not least because the original mall was destroyed in a fire 14 years previously started by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Wilson is pursued not only by those who claim they lost money because of his terrible financial advice, but by a paranormal live streamer who has a separate grudge against him while he continues to refuse any responsibility for his actions answering only that investment carries risk and there’s no opportunity without crisis. What he discovers is perhaps that you reap what you sow, Chan frequently cutting to hugely entertained netizens baying for his blood while he attempts to outrun his fiery karma. 

In each of the increasingly humorous storylines, Chan’s being a particular highlight of wit and irony, there is a lingering dissatisfaction with the contemporary society from the pressures of the fiercely competitive housing market to the kind of financial desperation and longing for connection that fuels the consumerist emptiness of influencer culture. The jury might be out on whether there’s really any such thing as “ghosts” but the haunting is real enough even if it’s only in your mind. 


Tales from the Occult screens at the Garden Cinema, London on 9th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)