Mad World (一念无名, Wong Chun, 2016)

Mad World_posterThroughout the aptly titled Mad World (一念無明), the central character frequently asks if he is really the one who is “abnormal” or if everyone else is merely operating under some misguided notion of “normality”, either deluding themselves that they meet it or actively masking the fact that they don’t. The first feature from Wong Chun, Mad World is not only the story of a man attempting to live with mental illness in a society which is unwilling to confront it, but also a discourse on the various ills of modern life from the ageing population and breakdown of the “traditional” family to the high pressure nature of “successful” living. Carefully nuanced yet pointed, Wong Chun’s vision is at once bleak and hopeful, finding victory in the courage to move on in self acceptance rather than in a less ambiguous discovery of a more positive future.

Tung (Shawn Yue) has spent the last year institutionalised after being arrested in connection with the death of his mother (Elaine Jin). The doctors and courts have both absolved him of any blame, but Tung has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is being released into the care of his estranged father, Wong (Eric Tsang), rather than simply released. When Wong picks Tung up at the hospital, the disconnect and anxiety between them is palpable, as is Wong’s embarrassment when he takes Tung back to the tiny room he inhabits in a low rent lodging house sharing a kitchen and a bathroom. Father and son will be sleeping on bunk beds with any idea of privacy or personal space firmly rejected.

Wong, a man in his 60s who’d all but abandoned his family for a career as a long-distance truck driver crossing the border into China, is ill-equipped to cope with caring for his son on several different levels. Perhaps a man of his times, he’s as ignorant and afraid of mental illness as anyone else, quickly getting fed up with Tung’s frequent crying fits and even stooping so low as to simply ask him why he can’t just be normal like everyone else. However, after getting more used to Tung’s new way of life, Wong does his best to get to grips with it, buying a number of books about depression and joining a support group for people who are caring for those with mental health needs.

Tung continues to struggle, finding it difficult to reintegrate into to society when society actively excludes those who don’t quite fit in. Attending a friend’s wedding shortly after having been discharged, Tung spots a few unpleasant social media posts referring to him under the nickname “Mr. Psychosis” while guests in the room mutter about the “nutjob” who must have just escaped the “loony bin”. Tung doesn’t do himself any favours when he grabs the mic and interrupts the groom’s speech to take the audience to task for their indifference, but the hostility he faces is entirely unwarranted. Later, experiencing another setback, Tung finds himself the subject of a viral video when he stops into a convenience store and guzzles Snickers bars in an attempt to improve his mood. It’s not long before someone has correctly identified him as the guy who was accused of killing his mother and put in a mental hospital, literally sending him right back to square one in terms of his recovery. To make matters worse, Tung can’t get any of his old contacts to look at his CV because they all have him branded as a dangerous madman and interviewing for new jobs never gets very far after they ask why there’s a one year gap in his employment history. 

Employment does seem to be a particular source of anxiety with frequent mentions of mass layoffs and even managerial suicides in the high pressure financial industries. Even before the events which led to his hospitalisation, Tung was undoubtedly under a lot of stress – planning a life with his fiancée, Jenny (Charmaine Fong), which adds the financial pressures of mortgages and saving to start a family. The sole carer for his elderly mother, Tung is also on the front line for her cruel, sometimes violent mood swings which, according to Wong, are a lifelong phenomenon rather than a symptom of the dementia she is also afflicted with. Tung lashes at out Jenny when she suggests putting his mother in a home where she can be better cared for, exhibiting a streak of unpredictable, frustrated violence of his own which also deeply worries him.

Tung may have inherited this impulsive volatility from his mother, in one sense or another, but his longstanding feelings of low self worth are as much to do with his parents’ seeming disregard for him as they are to do with anything else. His mother, unhappy in her marriage, blames her eldest son for trapping her in dead end existence while continuing to worship the younger one, Chun, who went to an Ivy League US university and has since left them all far behind. Constant, unfavourable comparisons to the golden boy only raise Tung’s levels of stress and resentment at being obliged to care for the woman who constantly rejects and belittles him after the “good” son and the “bad” husband both abandoned her. Wong “left” his wife because he couldn’t cope with her difficult personality and complicated emotional landscape, but now faces a similar dilemma with the son he had also left behind.

Hong Kong is, indeed, a maddening world as Tung and Wong find themselves crammed into a claustrophobic share house filled with similarly stressed and anxious people predisposed to see danger where there is none. Tung’s condition finds him semi-infantilised as the wiser than his years little boy from next-door becomes his only friend until his mother finds out about Tung’s condition and orders her son not to see him. Wong Chun’s central premise seems to be that the world will drive you crazy, but if there were more kindness and less hostility perhaps we could all stave off the madness for a little longer. Anchored by strong performances from Yue and Tsang, each playing somewhat against type, Mad World is a remarkably controlled debut feature which subtly underlines its core humanitarian message whilst taking care never to sugarcoat its less pleasant dimensions.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the star of Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL series directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart

Chasing the Dragon (追龍, Jason Kwan & Wong Jing, 2017)

chasing the dragon posterWhen it comes to Mainland China anything goes so long as you set your movie before 1949. In Hong Kong it seems the same thing is true only the cut off date is 1997. Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s surprisingly glossy Chasing the Dragon (追龍) follows two giants of 1960s Hong Kong in Crippled Ho whose life was previously brought the screen in 1991’s To Be Number One, and crooked (but only in a nice way) policeman Lee Rock who is played by Andy Lau – the very same part he inhabited in a series of films over 25 years ago. Marking a first time collaboration between martial arts superstar Donnie Yen and veteran leading man Lau, Chasing the Dragon firmly points its finger at the rotten roots of colonial corruption which, apparently, allowed such lawless times to endure in order to reap their copious rewards.

In 1963, Crippled Ho (Donnie Yen) smuggles himself into Hong Kong from the Mainland along with three of his friends and his little brother Peter. The boys find it hard to get honest work and are largely existing as hired muscle – or rather they’re supposed to get paid $30 to stand at the back make the local gangster’s gang look more impressive than it really is. One fateful day they get hired by Will, Grizzly Bear’s fixer, to hang around at a supposed confrontation with rival gangster Comic only this time the fight, which has been organised to put a damper on the birthday celebrations of crooked police chief Ngan, breaks out for real. Crippled Ho and the guys are skilled fighters who’d really rather avoid getting involved so they steal some police uniforms and try to escape by blending in but they’re caught by vicious British cop Hunter (Bryan Larkin) and nearly beaten to death before being rescued by the less corrupt Lee Rock (Andy Lau).

This first confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the film as Crippled Ho, a vicious, ruthless, and ambitious gangster is repeatedly plagued by Hunter – the typically racist, corrupt, incompetent, greedy, and amoral sort which seems to define British officialdom across the Empire. Empire is the big enemy here (though it’s easy enough for one Empire to stand in for another) as pictures of the Queen reign supreme and men like Hunter think they can do whatever they like because colonial life is cheap. Lee Rock knows his place with the system and is content to play it. He warns Ho that pretty much anything goes, but the Brits are off limits because it’s the authorities that are bankrolling this illicit economy and any attempt to bite the hand that feeds threatens to bring the entire system crashing down.

As revealed in Ho’s opening voice over, ’70s Hong Kong was a haven of corruption in which the authorities collaborated with the Triads partly as a way of appeasing them but also as a way to make money. Unlike his incorruptible buddy, Lee Rock is as corrupt as they come – setting himself a target of $500 million and becoming actively involved in the drugs trade. He does, however, have his limits and makes sure to always play within the “rules”. The rules go awry when Rock decides to try deposing an unpredictable gang leader in favour of a more stable one and gets trapped inside Kowloon Walled City only for Ho to come to his rescue in answer of their debt of loyalty.

Despite their positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, Lee Rock and Crippled Ho generate a genuine brotherhood during the ten years which see their ascent to the top of the Hong Kong criminal tree. The launch of ICAC in 1974 which aims to eradicate corruption across the board threatens to bring the party to an end with its obvious desire for efficacy in refusing to hire the same old stooges who will do nothing, and actually arresting some of the most notorious abusers of power. Wong and Kwan end the film with a frankly ridiculous statement that thanks to ICAC and the retreat of the British, corruption has now been completely eradicated from Hong Kong along with colonial rule. Yet, in keeping with censorship guidelines, both Rock and Ho are allowed to appear in an epilogue sequence in which they have an emotional conversation revealing the ways crime has not paid for them in the way they hoped it might.

Dripping with period detail and thankfully reining in some of the more outlandish elements and unwise comedy Wong is often known for Chasing the Dragon is also a surprisingly bloody affair as ears are sliced off, severed heads appear in boxes, and the gang engage in a series of action packed set pieces many of them set in the famed Walled City. Yen and Lau play two sides of the same game while their intense bond is shaken by the need for revenge and a suspicion of betrayal. Wong Jing redeems himself with the assistance of the ever reliable Kwan in a star studded tale of corrupt yet noble criminals daring to rebel against oppression by embracing its amoral rules.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (dialogue free)

The White Girl (白色女孩, Jenny Suen & Christopher Doyle, 2017)

white girl posterFollowing their Hong Kong Trilogy, first time feature director Jenny Suen and veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle get back together for another love letter to the “Pearl of the Orient”. With 2047 always in the back of the frame, The White Girl (白色女孩) is the story of a Hong Kong that was and will be as seen through the space which connects the two. In 2047 the mantra of One Country, Two Systems which has been applied to Hong Kong and surrounding territories since the 1997 handover will come to an end with Hong Kong simply becoming another region of China. With this starting point in mind, Suen and Doyle are left wondering what will happen in the next five years as they watch elements of the city begin to die or be eroded both by the passage of time and by the growing proximity of the 2047 deadline.

The White Girl (Angela Yuen), as she’s called, lives in Pearl Village where they still do things the old fashioned way. Living with her fisherman father, The White Girl dresses in long, dark clothing, and wears sunshades with a large floppy hat which hides her face and gives her a mysterious air of anonymity and otherworldliness. She does this because her father has told her that she is allergic to the sun, as her late mother was, so that she will never stray too far from him. Now a grown woman, The White Girl is beginning to think differently. She no longer takes her medication and has discovered a chest containing her mother’s clothes and a walkman with a tape inside featuring her mother singing her trademark song. Defying her father by walking around the town dressed only in her mother’s vintage white camisole and nickers, The White Girl who once felt invisible is seen by everyone including a new visitor to the village, Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri), a runaway Japanese artist squatting in local ruin.

Pearl Village, like Brigadoon, is a place that doesn’t quite exist. An example of the traditional Hong Kong fishing village which has all but died out, Pearl Village is a timeless place which seems to exist across eternity encompassing all eras and filled with a melancholy nostalgia. The White Girl longs to know the truth about her mother, putting on her very 1960s cheongsam and listening to her sing on her ‘80s walkman before walking to a pay phone to ring a DJ to ask him to play her mother’s song and then listening to it on a portable transistor radio. There are no mobile phones or computers and the major source of info in the village is the little boy, Ho Zai (whose name, in different characters, also means “oyster”), who keeps his ear to the ground and knows everything which goes on in the land that he regards as his.

What Ho Zai has discovered is that the village chief is about to sell them out. Creating controversy with the censor’s board, Ho Zai remarks on a destructive bridge project which will damage the beauty of his village, destroying wildlife and killing the beautiful dolphins which live in the sea off the coast. The “tourists” who come to the village (there is no real reason for a tourist to ever come here) are really developers who’ve come to hear the village chief’s plans which include bulldozing the beautiful mangrove forest Ho Zai loves so much to build a luxury mall.

Also on the list for eradication is the ruined mansion, built in the Chinese/British colonial style, in which Sakamoto is currently living. The White Girl regards the “ruins” as her palace but warns Sakamoto that the villagers believe it to be haunted. Sakamoto brands himself its ghost which touches a nerve with The White Girl whose pale skin and vacant aura have seen her also branded a “ghost”, leaving her feeling alone and invisible, trapped in her tiny, timeless world. Sakamoto, a temporary visitor to the unchanging village, is a literal outsider observing all around him from inside the ruins via the in built camera obscura and finding himself strangely drawn to The White Girl who reminds him of himself.

The White Girl will attempt to save her palace and succeed, but only for a time as her closing monologue tells us. In having spent so long not wanting to become invisible and insisting she is no ghost, she speaks to us as the ghost of a dying a world, occupying a liminal space between past and present where memory and dream collide. Her deeply felt non-romance with the Japanese visitor is destined to remain unfulfilled but that is its point, as she tells us, we exist in the space between us. Pearl Village is a place of endless longing in which familiar music wafts in on the breeze, haunted by its own future and existing within the shadow of an inescapable fall. Beautiful and ethereal, The White Girl is just as elusive as its heroine, lingering like a half remembered dream which ended far too soon leaving only melancholy and irresolvable longing in its place.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮, Cheang Pou-soi, 2014)

Monkey King (donnie yen) posterEverybody knows the story of The Monkey King. His “journey to the west” has been reimagined by everyone from Tsai Ming-liang to Akira Toriyama but, all power to them, no one has yet had the courage to stuff Donnie Yen into a monkey suit to fully recreate the legend. Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮) rectifies this problem but makes up for it by adding a lot more to the already overcrowded arena. Based on a few early chapters of the story, this first of three Monkey King films could best be classified as an origin story as it retells the events which eventually see Sun Wu-kong imprisoned underneath Five Finger Mountain for 500 years.

Basically, a long, long time ago there was a war between gods and demons after which a fragile truce was formed. The demons were defeated and exiled from Heaven which is repaired thanks to the sacrifice of Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) who transforms herself into crystal tears, one of which births a strange divine creature who has a long and arduous journey ahead of him. Emerging from his crystal egg, The Monkey King (Donnie Yen) returns to lead his people before being discovered by a monk who seeks to train him and make sure he remains on the path of the light. Now renamed Sun Wu-kong, The Monkey King finds himself summoned to the heavenly court where he causes a bunch of trouble and becomes swept up in the Demon King’s ongoing plot for revenge.

A super high budget production, The Monkey King is a live action/animation hybrid even beyond that of any recent Chinese fantasy blockbuster. Utilising green screen for the majority of backgrounds, Cheang also adds in a menagerie of strange creatures including supernatural dragons before the final fight develops into a complete CGI fest as a giant cow and super powered monkey duke it out for the rights to define their world. Rendered in 3D the battles are a whirl of brightly coloured mythic action but it’s often a confection too sweet to be to be truly satisfying, backed up only by a very variable quality of animation.

The film’s true standout element is in the surprisingly nuanced performance of Yen who completely becomes The Monkey King right down to his animalistic gestures. This being a family film he’s much more of a recalcitrant fun lover than someone who likes to cause trouble, but nevertheless trouble is usually what you get if The Monkey King pays you a visit. He is, however, hampered by the slightly incongruous obviousness of his monkey suit given the more abstract designs afforded to other characters. Despite the inherent strangeness of his appearance, Yen is afforded the opportunity to do some quality acting alongside killer fight sequences even if he’s often let down by the lacklustre script and production design.

The origin story of The Monkey King is a necessarily long and complicated one but even so, Cheang seems to have decided that coherence is unnecessary when his audience knows the story so well already. Consequently, the potential romance between Son Wu-kong and the fox spirit Ru-xue is inadequately backed up given its importance to the central narrative whereas other characters appear for such little screen time that they almost seem like excuses to add yet another famous name to the poster. Meandering from one episode to another, the film makes little attempt to maintain engagement between its large scale set pieces, becoming over reliant on its parade of well known personages.

Despite the gravitas offered by Chow Yun-fat and the intense villainy of Aaron Kwok’s poisonous antagonist, The Monkey King remains a fairly silly exercise, a visual sugar rush which seems primed to put viewers off their tea whilst leaving them with a slight headache to boot. Playing best to small children and family audiences, The Monkey King’s only selling point is in the surprising (and almost unrecognisable) performance of Yen as its titular hero whose good hearted japes are sure to be appreciated by the young of heart everywhere. The Monkey King will return, but hopefully with a little more maturity as his quest nears its iconic destination, or at least with a little more finesse.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼, Lau Sze-yue, 1990)

look out officer BD 1The thing about classic Hong Kong comedies is, they were made for a very specific time and place as a quick populist diversion not intended to have much of a life beyond their original release. Despite the thrown together, sketch show-style progression from one tenuously related set piece to the next held together by quick fire comedy, they could also be surprisingly subversive as in this 1990 comedy starring a young Stephen Chow. Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼) is a silly buddy cop comedy and supernaturally tinged procedural but it also satirises the Hong Kong government’s response to the growing “boat people” crisis in which, as is declared in the film, those who’ve come from Vietnam for “economic reasons” will be regarded as illegal immigrants and deported. 

The film begins with two policeman as one berates the other for stopping to burn “ghost money” on the street, describing his need for ritual as like that of an old woman. The first policeman, Biao (Bill Tung), then gets a message on his pager to check out an abandoned warehouse. Piling into the police car, Biao and religious cop Chin (Stanley Fung) arrive but don’t find anything suspicious. Chin decides to leave while Biao wants to investigate further. Poking around, Biao finds himself directly above some kind of large scale drugs lab into which he heroically jumps and beats up most of the grunts waiting below before the head gangster turns up and throws him out of a window. Biao’s body lands directly on the top of Chin’s car who has returned after having second thoughts and wanting to make sure his partner is OK.

The “official” explanation is that Biao has killed himself because of his excessive gambling debts. Up in heaven he gets put on trial (alongside recently deceased dictators Ceausescu and Marcos) and the judges find that his death is indeed suicide despite his protestations. Eventually they agree to let him go back to Earth as a ghost to prove he was murdered and take revenge on the killer. Biao gets assigned a “saviour” whom he will know thanks to an unusual birthmark. The “saviour” turns out to be rookie cop, Sing (Stephen Chow), who is not exactly top of his graduating class but aided by Biao’s supernatural powers he just might be able to find the real killer after all.

As it turns out Chin dabbles in Taoist magic (to make his arms longer, for no particular reason) as do the gangsters who seem to have demonic forces on their side. Biao never saw the face of the man who killed him because he had him in a headlock, but he does remember his terrible body odour thanks to being shoved under his armpits. Victory in the final battle relies on conjuring a unique charm which consists of equally stinky ingredients including virgin’s urine, cat poo, and flatulence neatly bringing several of the film’s running jokes together into one satisfying punchline.

Running gags there are a plenty from the grumpy old cleaner at the police station they’ve nicknamed the 1000 year old virgin who likes to mop up the men’s toilets while they’re busy so she can assess the policemen’s “capabilities” for herself, to the cat who keeps defecting on the altar, and Sing’s general weediness. The supernatural procedural runs in tandem with the usual romantic comedy subplots including Chin’s over protective attitude to his grown up daughter who inevitably ends up in a relationship with Sing thanks to Biao’s supernatural wingman-ing. One of the “charms” Baio has been given to help him in his quest is a “lewd” spell which suddenly makes the victim randy for the first person they see. Biao uses this to get his own back on Chin for leaving him behind by making their austere superior officer suddenly come over all goey only to have her snap out of it and accuse him of sexual harassment.

The humour maybe distinctly lowbrow, but there is a degree of satire lurking in the background as Sing is sent into a “massage parlour” with a codeword in Vietnamese only to discover that all the girls in the place can understand it and immediately parrot back the recent ordinance of Vietnamese immigration. Later, a Vietnamese man threatens to commit suicide over the cruel and inhumane treatment he has received as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a life in Hong Kong, fearing he may be forcibly deported and will be killed if he has to go back to Vietnam losing everything he’s tried to build in Hong Kong.

When Biao eventually gets back to heaven they don’t want to let him in even though he’s cleared his name because heaven has a quota and he doesn’t meet the criteria. All is not lost, however, because you can buy your way in as an immigrant with ”special investor” status. In heaven, it seems, everything is fine so long as you have money. As above, so below. Another characteristically nonsensical, juvenile comedy from Shaw Brothers, Look Out, Officer! is as silly and of its time as one would expect but it is undeniably entertaining and unexpectedly moving in its final moments.


Remake of Philip Chan & Ricky Lau’s Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)

Port of Call (踏血尋梅, Philip Yung, 2015)

port of call posterBoy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.

Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?

Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which each dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.

Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.

Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.

Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.

Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.   


Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)