Barbarian Invasion (野蛮人入侵, Tan Chui Mui, 2021)

“Who are you?” the lead actress asks herself, at one point in several languages, as she tries to reclaim her identity from the library of roles which she must play key among them mother to six-year-old son and recent divorcee plagued by scandal. Tan Chui Mui’s meta drama Barbarian Invasion (野蛮人入侵), in which she also stars, is in part a search for the self along with the desire to assert ownership over a physicality that is otherwise uncomfortably shared but also an exploration of local indie filmmaking and the unique challenges faced by a female filmmaker in the South East Asian industry. 

Moon Lee (named for the Hong Kong star and played by Tan Chui Mui herself) was formerly a successful actress who married a high profile actor but has now divorced and is raising her six-year-old son Yu Zhou alone. Responding to a request from an old friend, she’s agreed to travel to the coast to revive her film career and has brought Yu Zhou with her as his father is filming in Japan and her mother has just had a knee operation. What Moon hadn’t realised is that she’ll be starring in a low budget action movie inspired by The Bourne Identity and that the director, Roger (Pete Teo), wants her to look convincing as a top assassin. Moon isn’t really convinced but begins to see it as an opportunity for personal growth training with the mysterious Master Loh (James Lee) who, like the wise old monk sitting outside, is fond of cryptic aphorisms.

Nevertheless, Moon’s attention is constantly diverted by Yu Zhou’s restlessness. He darts in to defend her while she’s trying to practice martial arts and runs away when left with a baby sitter, making friends with the daughter of a local cafe owner. She tells the assistant Cathy that when she was pregnant people would come up and touch her belly as if her body no longer belonged to her but had become public property. Moon resented being told that her baby was her greatest work, as if all of her other achievements paled in comparison to her motherhood and she herself had become nothing more than a conduit for her child’s existence. A mere 3D printer for the next generation, as she puts it. Yet what’s she’s doing is in effect an attempt to reintegrate body and soul. As the wise old monk tells her the body is not the prison of the mind but the mind a prison of the body. She achieves mastery over herself through embracing unconscious action. “What is “myself?” she asks Loh and finds the answer in the her that automatically raises its fist to her head in self-protection. 

But that doesn’t perhaps help her differentiate Moon Lee the woman from Moon Lee the actress and the various roles she’s played on and off screen. It seems there was a degree of scandal in her recent divorce that’s prompted her into a reconsideration of herself, while she is left feeling betrayed when Roger explains that the producers want to cast her ex Julliard (Bront Palarae) as her love interest and may even pick him over her if she refuses because he is still a big box office draw. Roger then gets a major offer of investment, but it’s from a Chinese actress who wants Moon’s part. Chinese producers want a Chinese star he tries to explain to an increasingly exasperated Moon who wonders what all this is for if she is so easily replaceable. 

In any case, an event which seems to transgress the borders between the real and the fictive throws her into the role of her amnesiac heroine who has only muscle memory along with the ability to speak several languages chiefly those spoken by roles she previously played such as a Burmese refugee and Vietnamese bride. Still, as her character begins to recover her identity she too comes into herself, brings some ironic closure to her relationship with her ex, and embarks on a somewhat mystic journey into the self all while ironically riffing on classic kung fu movie themes injected with a little contemporary pop culture. To the challenger the sword was everything, to Musashi everything was the sword Roger explains of a tale in which the elderly Miyamoto Musashi defeated a young rival through turning the world around him into a weapon, adding that to him while film was once everything everything is now film. And so it is for Moon in her ongoing psychodrama rediscovering herself among many others as she fights her way towards bodily autonomy and the reclamation of her authentic identity.


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

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English 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.

Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pretty Heart (心裏美, Terry Ng Ka-wai, 2022)

An idealistic teacher finds herself questioning her views on education while confronting her traumatic past in Terry Ng Ka-wai’s gentle drama, Pretty Heart (心裏美). Partly a contemplation of the nature of education, the film has some serious questions to ask about the contemporary school system and in its inbuilt inequalities along with the complicated relationships between parents and children while ultimately opting for a kind of balance in which there is room for many kinds of learning. 

For Chloe (Jennifer Yu Heung Ying) education shouldn’t just be about passing tests but learning about how to live life, gaining the ability to think critically and enriching one’s existence. But at her school, which is funded by both public and private means, she’s regarded as something of a troublemaker by Mrs. Tsang, the wealthy head of the board who seems to have the headmaster well under her thumb. Mrs. Tsang is so hands on because her son Chi Kit is a pupil though a somewhat indifferent one sure that his money and connections will engineer his success. A small fight breaks out when a young girl, Shu Ting, who comes from an impoverished single parent family, tries to hand out tickets for video lectures by top cram school teacher K.K. Ho with Chi Kit insisting that only the elite who have the means to pay deserve a place in the room. 

The incident at once lays bare the fallacy that education is a levelling force enabling social mobility under in meritocracy when kids like Chi Kit will always be able to game the system in ways that those like Shu Ting cannot even if, as Mr. Ho tells another pupil, at the end of the day it’s the effort you put in that counts. What annoys Chloe about the elite cram school with its good-looking teachers and flashy showmanship is its devaluing of education in giving kids tips on how pass exams while telling them that they can safely ignore half of the syllabus to focus on the bits that are most likely appear to on the test paper without actually needing to understand much of what they’re memorising. Defending himself, Ho eventually argues that he merely provides a complementary service intended to run in concert with the kind of education Chole offers which is less geared towards test scores than comprehensive learning. 

Yet he also takes Chloe to task for her lack of connection with the kids and image of herself as a teacher pointing out that she has never really bothered to learn much about their lives outside of the classroom. Much of her animosity towards the cram school stems from the fact is it is run by her estranged father whom she assumes to be cynical and unfeeling yet has generated a fatherly relationship with Shu Ting and is doing his best to support her while she contends with difficult family circumstances trying to balance her need to support herself and her mother financially with her education. 

Witnessing Ho’s innate kindness to those around him forces Chloe to rethink her preconceptions while accepting that her reserve has sometimes interfered with her intentions as an educator. Re-encountering her father also causes her to revisit longstanding childhood trauma which may in part have been born of a childish misunderstanding she may be better placed to process as an adult woman. As her father says, the most important thing to learn may be the art of forgiveness and it seems that she has been poisoning herself with hate and resentment as manifested in her literal heart problems. 

The conclusion that the film comes to is that it’s not all so black and white and perhaps the good comes with the bad. Having begun to deal with her emotional trauma, Chloe seems to have become a better and more engaging teacher committed to helping her students in all aspects of her lives. It may not solve the problems of social inequality in the school system or fix the commodification of education symbolised in the existence of the cram school but does at least seem to generate a shift in the general environment which sees even a relieved Mrs Tsang step back from her elitism. Admittedly a little contrived in its melodramatic narrative, the film nevertheless has its heart in the right place as the melancholy heroine learns a few lessons of her own in dealing with the traumatic past.


Pretty Heart screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actress Jennifer Yu Heung Ying will be in attendance to collect her Bright Star Award.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Deliverance (源生罪, Kelvin Shum, 2022)

A young woman haunted by the buried memories of repressed trauma discovers that sometimes it really is better not to know but also comes to a new appreciation of familial love in Kelvin Shum’s visually striking psychological chiller, Deliverance (源生罪). Meaning something more like original sin the Chinese title hints at the reconsideration of the traditional family which lies under the central mystery and prompts the heroine, long separated from her siblings, to question the nature of her familial bonds and whether she can really say that those closest to her have her best interests at heart. 

After living abroad for 15 years, Nicole (Summer Chan) has married and returned home to Hong Kong with her husband but is haunted by a shadowy figure that reminds her of her childhood trauma in being unable to remember anything about the night her mother passed away after a long illness. Back in a familiar environment and reconnecting with her siblings, old memories begin to surface particularly after a few sessions with her famous hypnotist brother, Joseph (Simon Yam). Gradually she begins to suspect that her mother may not have died of her illness as she was led to believe but may have been murdered and possibly by a member of her immediate family which was then under intense pressure from loansharks due to debts run up by her absent father who ran away and abandoned the family to their fate. 

The theme of abandonment continues to resonate, Nicole insecure in her familial relationships as her brothers sent her abroad to study shortly after their mother’s death. She can’t escape the idea that they are keeping something from her, and is quite literally haunted by her inability to remember what happened on the night her mother died. But as Joseph had said during one of his lectures, memory is a treacherous thing and if you don’t remember something perhaps that’s because it’s better not to. Then again as her brother Will adds, it’s impossible to escape your past and someday you will be expected to answer for it whether you remember it or not. 

Nicole’s insistence on knowing the truth may partly be motivated by the fact that she is shortly to become a mother herself, though Joseph tries to convince her that her eerie visions and increasing paranoia are side effects of her pregnancy. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and Nicole is beginning to feel as if she can’t trust anyone anymore, but nor can she trust her memories many of which are influenced by her brother’s hypnotism. Working as a doctor she is touched by the relationship between an elderly couple who remain devoted to each other as the husband (Kenneth Tsang) contends with terminal cancer, but is also struck by the discord between their children who argue loudly in the corridor about the responsibilities of care and the financial burden of their father’s medical treatment. 

The understanding she begins to come to is that all of these reactions can in fact come from a place of love even if it doesn’t really seem like it on the surface. Whatever happened to her mother it may be no different, and if her family are indeed keeping something from her it may be out of a desire to protect her from the truth however misguided a desire that may be. As Joseph had said in his speech, emotions can take lives but they can also save them, though it appears the pain of not knowing is eating away at Nicole’s soul and only the truth can set her free. Mr Lam, the terminal cancer patient, cheerfully explains that all of life is a journey towards death but only to emphasise that it’s how you use the time that’s important so obsessing over the past might not serve you so well in the end. In any case, the journey into her own psyche may be uncomfortable and reveal truths that are painful but allows Nicole to begin overcoming her trauma while repairing her existing familial bonds before beginning new ones. Shot with noirish visual flair featuring high contrast colour and a dreamlike eeriness in Nicole’s ever present haunting, Shum’s psychological mystery suggests orphaned files must be brought back into the fold and that there can be no healing without truth but also that the expression of love can take many forms not all of which are easily understood. 


Deliverance had its World Premiere as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (dialogue free)

The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊, Ho Cheuk-tin, 2022)

Loosely based on a real life case in which a man murdered his parents then reported them missing and even went to the media for help looking for them, Ho Cheuk-tin’s The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊) distances itself from the sensationalism of the crime to ask a series of questions about human nature and the operation of the criminal justice system. The first of those questions is obviously why, but not just why did he murder the people who raised him but why did he go to the media and why did he eventually decide to confess. 

One reason Henry (Yeung Wai-lun) gives for killing his parents is that his upbringing was abusive, a fact later confirmed by his sympathetic cousin herself a devout Christian. It seems fairly clear that Henry has an inferiority complex for which he blames his mother and father, resentful that they made him play piano and wouldn’t let him play basketball to which he attributes the small stature that led to merciless bullying in school and fractured masculinity in adulthood. Ho often places the camera slightly behind Henry’s shoulder, emphasising his smallness and neatly reflecting the way in which he literally feels as if everyone is looking down on him. He has so far had a life full of failure, studying abroad but failing to make the grade and resentful towards his more successful older brother Ho Jin to whom his parents force him to sign over his share of a flat they bought as an investment after Henry’s gambling debts and inability to find a job left him unable to pay the mortgage. Losing a flat in Hong Kong is worse than losing a life Henry’s lawyer points out at trial, attempting to justify the resentment that led to Henry’s decision to not only murder but brutally dismember his parents. 

Another question mark, however, hangs over Henry’s accomplice and why exactly he chose to take him down with him. Angus (Mak Pui-tung), a man he met at a job interview, seems to have learning difficulties and may not quite understand what is going on. His sister describes him as naive and explains that he has a tendency to make friends with those who only hope to exploit him and may have been manipulated by Henry in fear for the safety of himself and his family or else simply not to lose the friendship. The extent of his involvement with the crimes remains unclear, Henry claiming that he was present and participated in the killing of his mother, while Angus insists that he only took part in the disposal of the bodies. Perhaps uncomfortably the film asks how much we can really trust Angus, suggesting that he may simply be manipulating the sympathy of others and is not really quite as naive as he makes out. 

In any case, his treatment at the hands of the police is as unjust as it comes, intimidated into offering a confession simply to make the interrogation stop so that he sleep and get something to eat. In court the truth hardly matters, a trial is about constructing a credible narrative. The lawyers for joint defendants Angus and Henry attempt to undercut each other, Henry’s arguing he is not responsible on the grounds of mental illness while implicating Angus as the instigator, and Angus’ intent on emphasising his disability suggesting was merely manipulated by Henry. The jurors in the jury room struggle to make sense of the case but also of their own role, tasked not with assessing guilt or innocence but the strength of the argument based on the evidence they’ve been given only for some of them to base their convictions on gut instinct anyway. 

They are perhaps aware that Henry is a master manipulator, he lied to his own brother and fooled all of Hong Kong with his video appealing for support before dramatically confessing online. He has obvious delusions of grandeur and idolises Hitler, claiming that had he been born at the right time he could have done what Hitler did. Ho often dramatises his moments of introspection as fantasy in which Henry poses as Hitler and speaks German to those around him before snapping back to reality and finding him experiencing a moment of clarity that makes him step back. Yet there are moments of heartbreaking authenticity in the “friendship” between the two men such as in their meeting at the job interview as they bond in a shared sense of rejection, the subtext of their crimes inviting the reading that they are intended as acts of vengeance against the society into which neither of them was able integrate. 

In the closing scenes, a policeman remembers evidence left behind during the initial sweep of the crime scene by his incompetent boss and returns to Angus’ apartment to find a migrant family living there who tell him they know there was a murder but they don’t care about things like that and are just grateful to have a home. Henry too continues his dark jokes about permanently devaluing his family’s apartments, but seems genuinely distressed on realising that his brother really may abandon him for his total lack of remorse while Angus finds himself exploited by the tabloid press only too eager for all the gory details. Ho’s closing images which find Angus enveloped in the webs of the spiders which plague his dreams perhaps hints at his place in a complex network of forces which contribute to his exclusion from prejudice towards the disabled to fatphobia along with the manipulation of men like Henry who promise friendship but only take advantage of his inability to resist. Then again, the fact of the matter is that you’ll never really know the truth, whether Henry did it all for the attention and ended up alone anyway or if it really was Angus who planned everything and fooled all of Hong Kong, like the jury all you can do is weigh up the evidence and draw your own conclusions.  


The Sparring Partner screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival and will open in UK cinemas on Nov. 18 courtesy of CineAsia.