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)

Anita (梅艷芳, Longman Leung Lok-man, 2021)

“I have the spirit of Hong Kong in me, I won’t resign to fate so easily” insists Anita Mui in a television interview following a year-long career break after a slap in a karaoke bar earned by standing up to a drunken gangster sparked a turf war and sent her into a temporary exile in Thailand. Running away wasn’t something Anita Mui was used to, though she had been it seems humbled by the experience and in Longman Leung Lok-man’s perhaps at times overly reverential biopic of the star who passed away of cancer at 40 in 2003, primed to rise stronger than before with greater focus and determination to serve the people of her home nation. 

Leung does indeed paint Anita (Louise Wong) as a daughter of Hong Kong, opening with her childhood as a vaudeville double act with self-sacrificing sister Ann (Fish Lew) in 1969. Jumping forward to 1982, the pair enter a TV talent competition but only Anita makes through to the final and then eventually wins launching herself into superstardom and path to success that later seems to her to have been too easy. Indeed, Leung frequently cuts to montage sequences featuring stock footage of the real Anita Mui receiving a series of awards and eventually moving into a successful film career with her appearance in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge bringing her best friend Leslie Cheung (Terrance Lau Chun-him) with her as she goes. 

If there’s a defining quality beyond her defiance that Leung is keen to capture, it’s Anita’s generosity and kindheartness. In the opening sequence, the 6-year-old Anita goes to great pains to rescue a balloon trapped in a tree for a little boy who then runs off happily forgetting to say thank you. Ann tells her off for going to trouble for someone who couldn’t even be bothered to say thanks but as she said it makes no difference she’d just just have told him it was no bother and the whole thing would be a waste of time. Her path to fame is not one of ruthless, she is keen to pay it forward and to help others where she can. She is obviously pained when her sister is cut from the competition and mindful of her feelings while bonding with life-long friend Leslie Cheung after his performance at a nightclub bombs while hers is a hit thanks in part to her ability to charm her audience in three different languages switching from Cantonese to Mandarin for a contingent of Taiwanese guests and Japanese for a gaggle of businessmen sitting at the back during a rendition of classic unifier Teresa Teng’s Tsugunai. 

Then again, though we see much of Anita Mui’s post-comeback charity work including that to raise money for flood victims in Taiwan, we obviously do not see any of her pro-democracy political activism or role in assisting those fleeing the Mainland after Tiananmen Square. Such controversial aspects of her life may be taboo for the contemporary Hong Kong or indeed Mainland censor, as perhaps are any overt references to Leslie Cheung’s sexuality even if Anita’s other key relationship, her stylist Eddie, is played with a degree of camp by a fatherly Louis Koo. For similar reasons, despite the emphasis on supporting other artists her major protege Denise Ho, who was recently arrested for her support of Hong Kong independence, is also absent. 

Meanwhile, the film is otherwise preoccupied with a more literal kind of maternity in directly contrasting the course of Anita’s life with that of her sister Ann who married and had children but later passed away of the same disease that would claim Anita just a few years later. The film presents her life as one of romantic sacrifice, that she was forced to choose between love and career and never found true romantic fulfilment. The love of her life, according to the film, was Japanese idol Yuki Godo (Ayumu Nakajima) who was more or less ordered to break up with her because the Japanese idol industry is much more controlling of its stars than that of Hong Kong, only his real life counterpart Masahiko Kondo was actually involved in a fair amount of scandal a short time later having become engaged to a Japanese idol who broke into his apartment and attempted to take her own life after he broke up with her and began dating another pop star. Anita is often described as the Hong Kong Momoe Yamaguchi with whom she shares her low and husky voice as well as rebellious energy, though Momoe Yamaguchi in fact retired quite abruptly after marrying her on-screen co-star and devoted herself to becoming the perfect housewife and mother in an echo of the romantic destiny the film implies continually eluded Anita culminating in her decision to marry the stage during her final concert. 

At the end, however, the film returns to her as a daughter of Hong Kong embodying a spirit of rebellion it subversively hints is now in danger of being lost. Yet Anita refused to resign herself to fate, ignoring her doctor’s advice to stop singing after developing polyps in her vocal chords and again when told to stop working during her treatment for cancer. Her defiance and resilience along with the conviction that anything is possible if you want it enough echo the spirit of Hong Kong in 2003 though later wounded by her loss and that of Leslie Cheung who tragically took his own life a few months before Anita too passed away. Featuring a star-making turn from model Louise Wong in her first acting role, Leung’s brassy drama capturing the fervent energy of Hong Kong in its pre-Handover heyday is a fitting tribute to the enduring spirit of its defiant heroine. 


Anita screens at the Soho Hotel, London on 8th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Tsugunai

Momoe Yamaguchi – 曼珠沙華 (Manjushaka)

Anita Mui – 曼珠沙華

Life Without Principle (奪命金, Johnnie To, 2011)

A financial earthquake destabilises the ordinary lives of a series of Hong Kongers in Johnnie To’s circular thriller, Life Without Principle (奪命金). As one character puts it, greed is human and everyone always seems to want more but even a little is out of the reach of many and so perhaps their desire is understandable in a world in which a loan shark can lord it over the bank who are in essence little better than he is in exploiting their customers by charging them extortionate fees yet failing to protect their investments. 

Just before the financial crisis of 2008, bank clerk Teresa (Denise Ho Wan-see) is beginning to fear for her job because she’s stuck at the bottom of the staff sales leader board and her boss doesn’t even bother to tell her off anymore. Under pressure she finds herself misselling a high risk BRIC loan to an older woman seemingly fearful of her declining economic power and hoping to make her savings pay a little more rather than just sitting in the bank doing nothing. Meanwhile Teresa is at the constant beck and call of boorish loanshark Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang) who won’t take out a loan with her because banks just rip you off. “Business is about profit but you have to play fair” he unironically explains handing over a card in case Teresa ever needs a “fair” loan pointing out you’ll pay 35% interest on a credit card but he’ll give you 15% even with bad credit. In any case, he leaves with only half of the 10 million he took out, asking Teresa to deposit the rest and sort the forms out later because he’s in a hurry, only he ends up getting offed in the car park meaning that second five million is in paper limbo. 

Teresa can’t really argue that the bank is morally any better than the loanshark, only that what they’re doing is legally regulated even if she has just broken a series of regulations in talking the old woman into the risky loan because she herself fears a financial crisis in losing her job. Meanwhile in another part of the city, one old man ends up killing another in a property dispute amid the city’s notoriously difficult housing market. The policeman investigating, Cheung (Richie Jen), is ironically called away because his wife, Connie (Myolie Wu Hang-yee), is nagging him about buying a new apartment requiring a one million deposit on a 30-year mortgage. She complains that he’s stubborn and overcautious, but he is at least pretty much the only person showing any kind of prudence in the cutthroat investment world even as he hesitates on learning that his estranged father is at death’s door leaving behind an illegitimate little girl it falls on he and his wife to adopt. 

If Cheung’s caution seems cold, it’s ironically mirrored in the film’s only pure hearted hero, ironic triad parody Panther (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who only cares about old-fashioned ideals like gangster loyalty even if those ideals are often expressed through money. Complimented by a boss for not trying to steal from a wedding collection he nevertheless games the restauranteur but only desires money in order to bail out his gangster friend Wah (Cheung Siu-fai) who is immediately deserted by all his minions who obviously don’t have the same ideas of loyalty as old school Panther. “Loyalty matters most” he insists to an old friend who left the triads to work as a junk collector because you can make more money recycling cardboard than in the contemporary underworld. Even his former sworn brother Lung (Philip Keung Ho-man) has managed to do very well for himself as a legitimate businessman hosting online gambling platforms and playing the stock market. 

Yet as Panther pores over data it becomes obvious that they are all betting on the market remaining the same, blindsided by the advent of the Greek Debt crisis and its devastating destabilisation. They thought they had control, that the decisions they made based on the data they received would remain correct only to realise that they are almost entirely powerless. Teresa fiddles with the jammed lock on her cabinet as she vacillates over whether or not to cash out of the corporate life with the “invisible” money, while Connie reckons with potentially losing her deposit when the already risky mortgage application is turned down, and the old lady is left to face potential financial ruin all alone in the twilight of her life. Then again, fate is fickle. The crisis passes as quickly as it arrived allowing a kind of normality to return but finding the desperate protagonists largely unchanged if perhaps emboldened by the feeling of relief resulting from their accidental lucky escapes from certain ruin. A slick and intricately plotted elliptical thriller, Life Without Principle revels in cosmic ironies but nevertheless holds only scorn for the dubious promises of spiralling consumerism in an increasingly jaded society.


Life Without Principle screens at London’s Prince Charles Cinema on 7th July as part of The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Indian Boyfriend (我的印度男友, Sri Kishore, 2021)

An awkward young man from India begins to see new possibilities in life after falling for his beautiful neighbour in Sri Kishore’s comic melodrama My Indian Boyfriend (我的印度男友). Billed as the first ever Indian-style film made in Hong Kong, Kishore’s musical romance has already come in for a degree of criticism with some objecting to what they see as a pun on a racial slur in the film’s original Cantonese title (which has since been changed) though the cross-cultural love at the film’s centre does perhaps attempt to overcome a sense of division even if cultural differences are not in the end what keeps the couple apart so much as their individual circumstances. 

The hero, Krishna (Karan Cholia), is the youngest of three siblings and moved to Hong Kong with his family as a child but has been unable to settle, finding it difficult to get a job and repeatedly stating a desire to return to India. Jasmine (Shirley Chan Yan-Yin), meanwhile, is a model and dance instructor technically engaged to sleazy businessman Richard (Justin Cheung Kin Sing) to whom she feels indebted because he took care of her family when her father died but otherwise appears not to like very much possibly because of his worryingly controlling, possessive personality. In fact, the pair’s first meeting is brokered by Richard’s unsolicited racist provocation on spotting Krishna and his Chinese friend Kong (Kaki Sham) outside the building into which Jasmine is about to move generating a sense of animosity that proves difficult to dissipate until Krishna discovers that Jasmine is actually a friend of his sister’s and thereafter falls in love with her. 

It has to be said that Krishna’s obsessive courtship crosses the line of what is considered appropriate, quite clearly making Jasmine uncomfortable and leaving her in a difficult position because of her friendship with the rest of the family. We can see that Richard is definitely bad for her (and every other woman on the planet), but to begin with it’s not clear Krishna is much better save for the fairly low bar that when he realises his behaviour is problematic he does agree to back off if occasionally trying to badger Jasmine into a platonic friendship while warning her against marrying Richard whom she already agrees is likely to make her extremely unhappy. 

Richard meanwhile is continually spitting chips, both incredibly jealous and intensely racist throwing racial slurs around at random and later sending in some of his hired thugs to have Krishna beaten up though it’s unclear why he thought doing either of these things would help to endear him to Jasmine even as he continues to leverage the financial assistance he’s given her family to imply she has no other choice but to become his wife in recompense. In fact neither of the men really give much thought to what Jasmine might want, nor does her mother (Griselda Yeung) take her feelings into consideration coming from an earlier time in which financial stability was the only concern either oblivious to Richard’s many red flags or thinking they’re worth putting up with so long he continues to provide a comfortable life. Even so Richard’s obvious racism does not seem to be so far out of line with society around him, Krishna finding himself constantly facing xenophobic microaggressions with even a prospective employer taking one look at him and openly remarking that they don’t hire South Asians followed by a justification based on a series of offensive racial stereotypes. 

The constant xenophobia along with his father’s incessant criticism fuels Krishna’s sense of futility along with his half-hearted desire to return to India where he perhaps feels he might do better free from the twin pressures of unfair parental expectation and societal prejudice. Nevertheless, his love for Jasmine forces him to confront himself and turn his life around now given a reason to start making a concrete life for himself in Hong Kong while her love for him strays a little into the uncomfortable as she’s won over by the force of his feelings and thereafter turns him into a kind of project, a fixer upper boyfriend, restoring his sense of confidence by embracing his talent for dancing so that he can begin to make something of himself while she continues to struggle with her mother’s disapproval not only because of her prejudice towards Krishna on the grounds of his ethnicity but her insistence on the debt they owe to Richard. But then as Krishna says love is love whether it’s in India or Hong Kong, and will eventually conquer all. Featuring several Bollywood-style musical sequences and some fairly questionable twists typical of romantic melodrama, Kishore’s light hearted love story does at least embody a sense of cross-cultural flow as the lovers (and their families) overcome their various prejudices to embrace the love they have for each other. 


My Indian Boyfriend screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Bamboo Theatre (戲棚, Cheuk Cheung, 2019)

Cheuk Cheung’s otherwise observational documentary Bamboo Theatre often interrupts the action with a series of title cards beginning “this is a space”, a space for ritual, for culture, for the traditional and for its evolution both manmade and somehow spiritual. Bamboo Theatre (戲棚) is in fact Cheuk’s third documentary on the subject of Chinese opera having apparently developed an interest through a chance encounter that left him surprisingly moved, but the focus this time is as much on the building as it is on the art emphasising the ironic endurance of these transient structures forever dismantled and rebuilt in a constant process of change and renewal. 

As the closing titles reveal, the number of bamboo theatres operating across Hong Kong has dropped by 30% though the traditional practice continues to endure with communities across the islands conducting ritual to honour the birth of Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. Built entirely from bamboo without the use of a single nail, the structures are a marvel of engineering yet intended to stand for less than two months, performances taking place for only three to seven days before the entire theatre is dismantled and transported to its next location to be resurrected anew. Cheuk elegises the disappearing art form through long sequences of painstaking construction scored with classical music as if to lament the dying nature of the craft while bearing testament to its survival as the company crafts its own space with its own hands not only a stage and makeshift covering but a warren of backstage corridors where costumes are steamed and pressed while actors rehearse or put on their makeup. A scenic boat is even is whipped up mid-performance seconds before being tracked on stage. 

Meanwhile, the theatre creates its own kind of spectacle outside its doors a mini festival taking place in the open air with stalls selling nicknacks and street food. The audience appears diverse, a mixture of small children accompanied by parents or grandparents along with elderly spectators attending alone, the kids well behaved and engaged with this very traditional art form. As another of the title cards reminds us, this is a space for entertaining both people and the gods, ritual and enjoyment presented with equal importance which explains perhaps how this incredibly laborious practice has managed to endure in an age which largely values convenience. 

Then again as one performer complains in one of the few scenes featuring dialogue, why don’t they put up a mobile toilet for the performers along with the rest of the structure, their personal convenience it seems valued comparatively little. A mess of hanging cloths, the backstage areas appear more spacious than one might expect, but are also subject to their own arcane rules a sign reminding women not to sit on crates for the gods though it seems unlikely anyone is doing very much sitting at all given the general business of backstage of life. Even once the audience has gone home, an old man commandeers the darkened stage to practice his art singing to an empty auditorium in an otherwise silent night. 

Having begun the film with a theatre’s construction Cheuk closes with its dismantling, foil sheeting from the roof clashing to the floor with apocalyptic intent yet also suggesting that this is how something survives, taken down in one place to be rebuilt in another the same but different, transient and eternal. In this way, xiqu opera survives its ritualised nature taking on an almost mystical dimension in its constant acts of appearance and disappearance though perhaps it’s ironic to think of something so obviously built by human hands as “intangible” culture. Even so, the enduring power of the bamboo theatre captured with an ethereal distance through Cheuk’s sensitive lensing is perhaps a sign of hope for the future in the face of persistent anxiety that such iconic local traditions are always at the risk of erasure. 


Bamboo Theatre screens in Chicago on April 2 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Far Far Away (緣路山旮旯, Amos Why, 2021)

An introverted IT specialist gets a crash course in romance when he accidentally ends up dating a series of women from the far flung corners of the land in Amos Why’s charming romantic comedy, Far Far Away (緣路山旮旯). An occasionally subversive love letter to a disappearing Hong Kong, Why’s elegantly scripted romance also presents a snapshot of the contemporary society in exploring the various reasons each of the women has rejected the high status, consumerist lifestyle of the cities in favour of a more bespoke happiness elsewhere. 

At 28, Hau (Kaki Shum) has had only one relationship and is still unsure why his previous girlfriend, a former co-worker, broke up with him. His sympathetic hometown friends are forever trying to set him up while he nurses a gentle crush on another woman from the office, A Lee, but is too shy to say anything and worried that her reluctance when colleagues suggest he drive her home after a night out implies that she finds his company uncomfortable. That is not as it turns out quite the case, the reason she didn’t want him to drive her home is that she’d moved from an upscale, prestigious area to a small rural town far out of the city because she broke up with her boyfriend and couldn’t afford the rent but didn’t want anyone to know. 

The constant obsession with men driving women home becomes a minor plot point with several of the women actively questioning why it’s necessary and occasionally even offended while forcing Hau to admit that in most cases he’s offering because he wants to spend more time with them rather than out of a general concern for their safety or simple convenience. Having abandoned the dating app he was working on at work to concentrate on a delivery/map service, he ends up bouncing all around Hong Kong visiting various women even venturing to places so far out he needs to apply for a separate permit to enter while beginning to rethink his life choices realising that the reason he’s so set on stubbornly occupying his family’s flat in the city is rooted in his childhood trauma of having lost his mother to illness and his father to the Mainland in a symbolic orphanhood that hints at the anxieties of contemporary Hong Kong. Hau’s recently married friends discuss the possibility of having children but admit that they don’t really want to do it unless they can move abroad, Hau later speculating they will go to Taiwan while his friend who goes by the ironic name “Jude Law” has a British National (Overseas) Passport. Hau himself admits that he’d never really given it much thought until recently when a prospective partner asks him if he’d ever considered moving abroad mostly to confirm he won’t suddenly announce he’s leaving once they start dating seriously because almost no one can see a future for themselves in a changing Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, each of the women has made a decision to prioritise something else rather than join the city rat race from a youthful young woman living in an idyllic coastal town while determined to marry at 29 to Hau’s college friend Melanie (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying) who chose to work for an NGO because of the better work/life balance that meant she wouldn’t be pressured into endless overtime. Then again another of Hau’s suitors appears to be just as ambitious as any other city dweller while viewing herself superior because her family bought a flat in a provincial area 25 years previously at a preferential rate and then sold it to her at below market value but more than they paid originally which strikes Hau as an odd arrangement between parent and child but speaks to the penny pinching mean spiritedness that leads her to blow up at him because he left a nice tip at a restaurant where service was included in the bill. An artist friend is willing to put up with primitive conditions in a remote mountain village because she’d rather have the stars than city lights, while each of the women also worry that any attempt at romance is always doomed to failure because no matter how keen they are or claim to be sooner or later the guys all ask them to move back to the city prioritising their own convenience while ignoring all of the reasons they chose to live in these very specific places. 

Eventually Hau becomes the exception, realising that the where isn’t the most important question acknowledging that perhaps he’s the one who ought to move in deciding to let go of the childhood trauma in his family home in order to make a new one of his own having figured out what he wants out of life and who he wants to spend it with which in the end dictates the where. Sometimes, love is just around the corner if you’re willing to go and have a look. A gentle celebration of a disappearing Hong Kong both literally and metaphorically, Why’s charming rom-com sends its hero on a roundtrip to love figuring out his place in the world in finding that home really is where the heart is. 


Far Far Away screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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