Lost Love (流水落花, Ka Sing Fung, 2022)

A grieving mother attempts to redefine her life by caring for the children of others in Ka Sing Fung’s poignant maternal drama, Lost Love (流水落花). Filled with boundless compassion, the film in part explores the sense of otherness felt by lonely children often rejected by the society around them, while allowing the wounded heroine to find a way to love again in the midst of her heartbreak, even if what she’s signed up for amounts to a cycle of perpetual loss. 

Mei (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man) lives an ordinary life working a series of unsatisfying and poorly paid jobs while her husband Bun works as a driver. Gazing at an empty room that might once have belonged to a child, we can feel a sense of loss and absence in the couple’s apartment while another young woman, Miss Mok (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), takes a cursory look around and seems to find everything in order pausing only to advise they give up smoking, at least in front of the children. Mei has decided that she wants to become a foster mother, but Bun does not seem entirely onboard complaining that he’s only really been “advised” of her decision rather than actively asked for his opinion. 

As is later revealed, Bun and Mei lost their three year-old son to illness and though Bun would have preferred to continue trying to have another child of their own, Mei is afraid to in case the same thing happens again. Yet the irony is that in becoming a foster mother she has signed herself up for repeated loss. The children who come to her do so temporarily and only until such time as they can be returned to their guardians or adopted by other families. After bonding with one little girl, Mei considers adoption but is told that it is not really permitted within the fostering system and she will have to resign herself to letting the child the go. 

Meanwhile, many of the children have specific needs and are often struggling to deal with the circumstances which led to them needing foster care. The first little boy Mei takes in, Sam, barely says a word and wets himself in stressful situations. When he stands up to a bully in school, he’s the one who gets into trouble with the teacher who makes prejudicial statements about “these kinds of kids” as if he’s already written him off. Sam poignantly reveals that the other kids were making fun of him for not having any parents leaving him additionally isolated and further damaging his already disrupted education. Another little girl, Hana, says something similar unwilling to go to school as the other children reject her because she has cleft palate. Ching, by contrast, is rejected by her own mother who seems to have remarried and had other children, palming her off on a grandmother who is unable to care for her while hospitalised. Two other children stay with Mei while their father is in prison, later describing Bun as the kindest man they’ve ever met while explaining that they were previously pushed from pillar to post bounced around between relatives who grew tired of caring for them. 

Even so, the foster care arrangement places a further strain on the couple’s marriage. Bun is at times resentful of the attention Mei gives to the children while still on the fence about fostering even at one point suggesting they simply get a dog instead. Yet despite everything Mei remains committed to caring for the children who come her way some of whom have no one else to care for them, helping them to gain the strength to keep living in the world and to feel less alone even in the face of unfair social prejudice. Ka tells her tale in elliptical fashion, pushing forward over a number of summers as different children occupy Mei’s spare room while she herself grows old but still determined to continue looking after kids in need. A repeated motif of falling petals hints at the temporality of all things, but also as they fall into the river a poignant sense of generational flow as Mei gently supports the children until they can support themselves and she can give no more leaving love behind her even in her absence.

Lost Love screens in Chicago April 1 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side (野草不盡, Crystal Wong, 2022)

Following the crackdown on the protest movement, many Hong Kongers began to think about seeking freer futures abroad, but what was it that those who decided to leave found there? Crystal Wong’s documentary the Grass is Greener on the Other Side (野草不盡) follows a collection of Hong Kongers who moved to the UK and explores the emotional complexity of life in exile as they attempt to hang on to their cultural identity in a society largely ignorant of their struggle. 

Wong mainly follows two protagonists, one a graphic designer about to become a father and the other a young student still fearing repercussions from his role in the protests whose friend is currently awaiting trial in Hong Kong. Both are clear that they reject a “Chinese” identity and defiantly describe themselves as Hong Kongers. Yet in the UK they are repeatedly asked to fill in forms asking for their ethnicity which generally offer only the choice of “Chinese” or a nebulous “other”, each time they write in Hong Kong as an alternative answer. One of the reasons the expectant father chose to leave is that he didn’t want his child growing up speaking Mandarin (both men are also ironically greeted with “ni hao” before explaining that they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong) but others ask him if he won’t end up losing his language to English instead, a removals man bringing up the case of his Australian niece who now refuses to answer her grandparents in Cantonese even when she understands what they’re saying. He and his wife insist they won’t let that happen, but even in job interviews they seem more interested in his ability to speak Mandarin than his design skills.  

Before he left, he attended a housewarming party for another friend who decided to stay and was able to buy a home thanks to a motivated seller emigrating in a hurry. Everyone seems to be leaving, even a shop attendant guesses that the student she’s serving is probably leaving soon when he mentions that he’s not sure if his card’s topped up enough. Yet another of the older men had said that it’s mainly those of their age who are planning to go abroad, the student protestors are deciding to stay and fight some of them resentful that the previous generation is dropping the ball by abandoning ship. The student, however, has taken the opportunity to study abroad to protect himself from repercussions from participating in the protests in Hong Kong heading to the UK while his friend prepares to leave for Germany vowing only to return should a war break out. 

Yet the designer asks himself if he’s really satisfied while a friend of his who’s been in the UK for a while cautions that he may get bored moving to a town like his which he says is better suited to retirees. He struggles to secure employment and considers moving out of London to save money but describes leaving Hong Kong as akin to an acrimonious divorce. He’s offended when someone asks him what he misses because what he misses is a disappeared Hong Kong to which he can never return. Some of his friends had described Hong Kong as like Goose Town in the 2010 Mainland comedy Let the Bullets Fly, a place completely oppressed by a corrupt authority. “You need to whole heartedly hate a place to decide to leave it permanently” he explains. 

Both he and the student attend the central London protests attempting to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s plight while carrying on the fight even in exile. One encounters a man who asks him what the protest is about and if he really “hates” China while stating that it reminds him of the situation in Sri Lanka and expressing solidarity with his struggle. The student meanwhile makes his way towards Trafalgar Square where the protest merges with another one hosted by Nigerians protesting political oppression in Nigeria. He regrets that he won’t be able to return to Hong Kong in time for his friend’s trial (especially considering the quarantine procedures during the pandemic) while trying to get on with his studies. Each of them struggle with their decision, wondering if they’ve done the right thing and if they will ever return to a free Hong Kong while trying to hang on to their cultural identity as they forge new lives in an unfamiliar society.

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side screens in London 31st March as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

If We Burn (血在燒, James Leong & Lynn Lee, 2023)

Clocking in at over four hours James Leong & Lynn Lee’s If We Burn (血在燒) provides the most comprehensive overview of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement of any of the recent documentaries focussing on the events leading up to the passing of the Security Law in June 2020. Utilising professionally shot footage of the protests along with that captured by protestors via mobile phone, the film presents a tale of gradually escalating tensions provoked by increasing police violence and an expanding sense of hopeless desperation. 

Focussing largely on a series of climactic events such as the storming of the Legislature, the Yuen Long and Prince Edward Station attacks, and the sieges of the Chinese University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the film posits police brutality as a deliberate tactic that developed into state terrorism designed to intimidate society into submission. In the talking heads segments which occupy the first half of the film, the filmmakers interview a journalist who was present at the Yuen Long attack and was herself beaten by the mysterious vigilantes who raided the station. In this and the attack at the Prince Edward station which followed, it was clear that the target was not solely protestors but the people of Hong Kong who were simply attempting to catch a train in order to go about their ordinary business and became victims of, in the case of the Prince Edward MTR passengers, state violence in an unwarranted police intervention. As the journalist explains, given such a threat to their safety it is not surprising that many were radicalised and that some who had previously been committed to peaceful protest resolved to fight fire with fire. 

Some also regard the police action as a deliberate tactic, that in escalating violence the authorities attempt to provoke those protesting in order to justify even harder crackdowns. It’s also later revealed that police officers infiltrated the movement, dressing as protestors but suddenly attacking those around them giving rise to mistrust and paranoia. A lengthy sequence in which a mob at the airport protest catch a man they believe to be a Mainland police spy hints at the moral ambiguity of the protest movement as they argue with each other what to do with him while the man himself becomes a stand-in for the entirety of the violence inflicted so far. As tensions rise and duplicitous actions of the authorities increase, protestors begin to lose their sense of righteousness agreeing that there no longer is any line they will not cross to secure the freedom of Hong Kong. 

It’s clear that this period of instability has greatly affected the mental health particularly of younger protestors with many thrown into despondency and despair. During the university sieges, many state their intention to die and become martyrs while others talk of suicide and the toll the deaths of friends have already taken on them. During a rally in which older people offer thanks and support to the student protestors a young musician tearfully talks of how the the protest movement’s lack of success has exacerbated his depression and left him feeling hopeless with the only the solidarity of the people around him keeping him going. 

What had begun as a simple request to reject the Extradition Law Amendment Bill soon turns into a series of five demands and finally towards a desire for independence among the more hardline of the protestors who are now so mistrustful of Mainland authoritarianism that they can never consent to living under it. The documentary ends with alarm bells still ringing and a post-apocalyptic vision of battlefield destruction in the quad of the Polytechnic University peppered with small fires and piles of rubble while police drag protestors away from the scene. Talking heads who still appear in masks and goggles with disguised voices look back on the effects of the protests and the various ways they are changing Hong Kong while a piece of onscreen text coldly explains that the Security Law was passed and many have since been arrested or fled into exile. Still, as the alarm bells ring over the closing scene featuring the graffiti that gives the film its title, the documentary seems to suggest that all not yet lost while flame of resistance continues unextinguished.

If We Burn screens at London’s Genesis Cinema 18th March as the Opening Gala of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Where the Wind Blows (風再起時, Philip Yung, 2022)

Philip Yung’s first film since the acclaimed Port of Call was scheduled for release all the way back in 2018 only to be repeatedly held up by troubles with the censors later compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. For many reasons, it isn’t surprising that Where the Wind Blows (風再起時) would run into trouble with the current censorship regime dealing as it does with the touchy subject of police corruption albeit it in the colonial era, but the most surprising thing may be that it was passed at all given the subversive undertones of a late speech delivered by the voice of reason, ICAC chief George Lee (Michael Hui Koon-man), whose attack on the corrupt practices of the British authorities has obvious parallels with the modern day. 

The film is however set firmly in the past ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s and inspired by the “Four Great Sergeants” of post-war Hong Kong who amassed great personal wealth while working as police officers. Once again, the police is just the biggest gang, or perhaps the second biggest given that the great racket in town is the colonial rule. It is indeed the British authorities who have enabled this society founded largely on systemised corruption, something which as Lee points out they are unwilling to deal with because it suits them just fine and they have no real interest in the good of Hong Kong. 

In any case, flashy cop Lok (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) started out as an earnest bobby before the war who was shocked by the institutionalised corruption all around him and refused to participate in it. But his law abiding nature only made him a threat to other officers who needed him to be complicit in their crimes to keep them safe. After several beatings, he ended up accepting the culture of bribery just to fit in. In the present day, he and likeminded detective Nam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) justify their dubious methods under the rationale that they’re helping to “manage” triad society by effectively licensing the gangs in taking protection money to leave the chosen few alone while enriching themselves in the process. 

Then again, the balance of triad society is disrupted by the arrival of a bigger Mainland outfit which later ends up backing Lok, with the assistance of his Shanghainese wife (Du Juan), to place him in a position which is the most beneficial to themselves. To quell riots by supporters of the KMT in 1956, Nam lies to the protestors that he secretly supports their cause and that if they do not disperse there is a chance the British Army will forcibly disperse them which he also describes as an inappropriate outcome because this is a matter that should be settled among the Chinese people not by foreigners. In the final confrontation with ICAC chief Lee, the British authorities rule out military or police action, though the rioters in that case are in fact policeman angry about increasing anti-corruption legislation. Ironically enough, Lee’s speech advocates for something similar to that which Nam had suggested, essentially saying that the Hong Kong people should decide their own future and that society in general should be more mindful as to the kind of Hong Kong their children and grandchildren will eventually inherit. 

In any case, the four sergeants are soon eclipsed by changing times while Lok and Nam are mired in romantic heartbreak in having fallen for the same woman who brands Nam an over thinker and implies she may have married Lok less out of love than in the knowledge he’d be easy to manipulate. For his part, Lok is damaged by wartime trauma which has left him cynical and nihilistic while filled with regret and longing for a woman he lost during the war in part because he did not have the money to pay for medical treatment which might have saved her. In this sense, it’s money that is the true corrupting force in a capitalist society in which, as Lee suggests, it might eventually become necessary that you’d have to bribe a fireman to save your house or an ambulance driver to get your ailing mother to a hospital. Then again, as Nam says power lies in knowing there are those weaker than yourself. Yung’s sprawling epic apparently rant to over five hours in its original cut before being reduced to three hours forty-five and then finally to the present 144 minutes leaving it a little hard to follow but nevertheless filled with a woozy sense of place and an aching longing for another Hong Kong along with a melancholy romanticism as a lonely Nam dances alone to a ringing telephone bearing unwelcome news. 

Where the Wind Blows screens in Chicago on March 14 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Sunny Side of the Street (白日青春, Lau Kok-rui, 2022)

Dualities abound in the stories of two frustrated fathers and the sons who vow to be nothing like them in Malaysian director Lau Kok-rui’s paternal drama, The Sunny Side of the Street (白日青春). The fathers are in their way looking for a place in the sun but struggle to find it, while the sons want nothing but their affection and approval but remain resentful for their repeated failures. Each affected by the legacies of geographical displacement, they remain free floating if looking for safe harbour though perhaps in all the wrong places. 

The parallels between embittered taxi driver Yat (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and former lawyer turned refugee Ahmed (Inderjeet Singh) are amply demonstrated by the opening sequence in which each is late for a wedding after Yat rams into the van Ahmed had borrowed from store owner Ali to transport a secondhand fridge. Yat arrives just in time to see his son, Hong (Endy Chow Kwok-yin), make the toast at his wedding but thank his father-in-law, a senior policeman at his precinct, while looking daggers at Yat whom he only invited a few days before out of a sense of obligation. Ahmed meanwhile was supposed to be a witness at a wedding between a Pakistani man and an Indonesian woman at the refugee camp not far from where Yat lives which the officiant is keen to remind them is binding in the eyes of Allah but not so much the government of Hong Kong. 

As a somewhat prejudicial radio show playing in Yat’s car explains, Hong Kong is a point of transit. If their claims are upheld, the refugees will not settle there but be moved on to other countries such as Canada where a family at the wedding are about to travel taking the best friend of Ahmed’s son Hassan (Sahal Zaman) with them. The radio show talks about “fake refugees” describing them as a drain on resources depriving local people of services they should otherwise be entitled to while it’s clear that many don’t seem to see the refugees as equals and think of them as lazy shirkers with criminal proclivities. Yat repeatedly uses a racial slur to refer to Ahmed and immediately tries to pin the accident on him assuming the policeman will also jump to the conclusion that it must be Ahmed’s fault for being a bad driver only the policeman doesn’t quite play along even when pulling Ahmed aside for an ID check. 

The irony is that Yat is also a refugee who swam to Hong Kong from the Mainland and is still carrying trauma from his flight in the same way many like Ahmed are yet cannot find it within himself to empathise with him, only to act with entitlement and absolve himself of blame through manipulating his connections with the police. He has quite clearly lost his moral compass as the repeated motif of him looking the one which led him to Hong Kong but now appears to be broken makes plain. Hong pointedly refuses to help his father and is clear they should go by the book, but his less rigorous friend is only too keen to help. In any case the petty vendetta between the two men, Ahmed sticking to his principles and refusing to lie to make the situation go away and Yat insisting on enforcing his privilege by forcing him to back down, escalates with tragic results eventually forcing Yat to wrestle with the consequences of his actions and not least the causes of his estrangement with his son. 

Hong tells him that he doesn’t want to be a man like him who is unable to protect his family, while Hassan snaps at Ahmed that his acts of petty thievery are better than being poor like his father. Yet while Hong has swung in the opposite direction, raising himself to be a man who is compassionate and dedicated to justice, Hassan is in danger of going off the rails not least because he has bad eyesight and is falling behind at school because even as something as simple as glasses for their son is not in the family’s reach. Ahmed’s dodgy friend Numen is forever trying to get him into crime, knowing that refugees are not permitted to work or even accept monetary gifts, but he refuses while Hassan begins to see a way of taking control of his situation though thievery and rebels against his father as he does so. 

When Yat begins to take an interest in Hassan it’s mainly to assuage his guilt in knowing that he ruined Ahmed’s life and has left a boy without a father for whom he is now responsible. Yet it’s also in a way an attempt to repair the relationship he could not rebuild with his son while addressing the latent trauma from his own escape from Mainland China which he has otherwise buried through heavy drinking that finally resulted in a liver transplant from Hong that only seemed to deepen the sense of debt and obligation between them. Perhaps Hong Kong is a transitory place after all, each of them in some way displaced and not least from each other while continuing to hope for a better place in the future only to discover nothing more than loneliness and uncertainty if tempered by love and the shades of a frustrated hope.

The Sunny Side of the Street screens March 12/17 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: (C) Petra Films Pte Ltd

All About Ah-Long (阿郎的故事, Johnnie To, 1989)

“Don’t ever make mistakes, you’ll never get a second chance!” warns the hero of Johnnie To’s melancholy male melodrama, All About Ah-Long (阿郎的故事). Ah-Long is indeed a man who’s made mistakes, mistakes he fears can never be corrected that have removed all possibility of his redemption only to be presented with new hope through a chance encounter and to have that hope eventually smashed by the cruel hand of fate. 

A former motorcycle racer, Ah-Long (Chow Yun-fat) has a job driving a truck at a quarry and lives in a tiny two room apartment sharing a bed with his 10-year-old son, Porky (Huang Kun-Hsuen). A fateful introduction from an old friend, Dragon (Ng Man-tat), accidentally reunites him with former girlfriend Por Por (Sylvia Chang), now calling herself Sylvia having become a successful ad executive after moving to the US following the couple’s acrimonious breakup while Ah-Long, badly injured in a motorcycle crash, ended up spending some time in prison. Sylvia’s class conscious mother had not approved of the relationship and in fact told her that the baby had died to convince her to move abroad. Discovering that Porky is alive, she begins to want him back planning to take him with her when she returns the to the US in the company of her fiancé Patrick (Alan Yu Ka-Lun). 

The situation may be somewhat reminiscent of the then recent Kramer vs Kramer but the parameters of the dilemma are different. Sylvia did not wilfully abandon her child nor is she being asked to choose between motherhood and personal fulfilment though as we later discover the traumatic circumstances of Porky’s birth have left her unable to bear any more children meaning that Porky is the only possibility of her reclaiming her maternity. Her request is in its own way selfish, considering her own feelings over Porky’s in suggesting they remove him from his home and everything he’s known while disrupting the clearly very close relationship between Ah-Long and his son. There is also something uncomfortable in the mediation of her love as she showers Porky with expensive gifts Ah-Long could never hope to provide, almost as if she were trying to buy him or at least tempt him away from wholesome working class Hong Kong towards consumerist paradise in the US hinting at the new international possibilities of a future outside of the post-Handover nation. Emptying his bank account, Ah-Long buys the puppy in a pet store window that Porky had doted on, but the boy barely reacts too busy playing with the new desktop computer Sylvia has set up for him in addition to tidying the apartment and making soup while Ah-Long was out. 

Through flashback we realise that Ah-Long was womanising bad boy, drunk and abusive, but has apparently seen the error of his ways humbled by his accident and matured by fatherhood now apparently reformed and dedicated solely to Porky’s upbringing. All he wants for him is a comfortable life and he knows that Sylvia can give that to him even if it means leaving Ah-Long behind alone in Hong Kong. While Sylvia’s fiancé Patrick claims not to care about her past but becomes increasingly controlling and paranoid, unwilling to accept Porky and insistent that they adopt a child of their own while resentful of her relationship with Ah-Long, Ah-Long continues to dream of a traditional family reunion with Porky showing the former lovers how to walk together during a parents’ three-legged race at the school sports day. 

Yet there is always a degree of distance between the one-time couple. To opens the film with the camera looking up at a pair of high rise buildings as it sinks to street level and then rises finding first Ah-Long’s moped and then the tiny apartment he shares with Porky. The camera pulls up again to catch the name of the swanky hotel where Sylvia is staying, a captivated Porky mystified by the elegant glass elevators rising inside, while Sylvia can hardly bear the literal rollercoaster ride at a local theme park the implication being that she can no longer bear the ups and downs of a life like Ah-Long’s while Porky may not be able to ascend to her life of middle-class stability. The promise of a life of comfort threatens to break the bond between father and son, the question becoming whether it is selfish of Ah-Long to prioritise their emotional bond in a life of wholesome poverty rather than sacrifice himself in allowing Sylvia to take Porky with her back to affluent if emotionally empty America. 

Even so, it begins to seem as if the pair may reach a form of equilibrium that places them on a similar level as Sylvia rejects the overbearing Patrick and leaves a door open for the reunion of the traditional family with a reformed Ah-Long who has learned the error of his ways and done his best to make amends. In true To fashion, however, fate has other ideas. Ah-Long sees his longed for dream in front of him and rides fast towards it only to be denied as if the universe had suddenly refused to grant him his redemption. The bleak conclusion perhaps implies that there really are no second chances for men like Ah-Long no matter how much they want them, while the peculiar contradictions of pre-Handover Hong Kong preclude such ordinary visions of happiness as could be found in familial reunification. 

Trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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

“It doesn’t matter how the food is cooked. Let’s just enjoy it in the presence of each other and not think too much” a regretful grandmother advises giving perhaps the best advice for how to survive an awkward family gathering in Eric Tsang Hing-Weng’s autobiographically inspired familial melodrama Hong Kong Family (過時·過節). Coloured with the shades of exile, Tsang’s melancholy exploration of a fragmenting family unit ponders the limits of communication between those who should be closest along with the lingering resentments and toxic legacies that poison otherwise loving relationships. 

An opening sequence set eight years before the main action lays bare the tension between middle-aged housewife Ling (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her mild-mannered husband Chun (Tse Kwan-Ho) who sits silently in the back of the family car as she berates him for having recently lost his job and been unable to find another which is particularly inconvenient as they’ve just taken out a mortgage and bought a flat. 17-year-old Yeung (Edan Lui) sitting in the front passenger seat tries to keep the peace but refers to his parents as Mr & Mrs Chan, while his older sister, 20-year-old Ki (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), pretends not to hear escaping from reality by listening to music on her headphones. When they finally arrive at her mother’s home, a well appointed detached house out in the country, they are greeted by Ling’s brother Ming who has already fallen out with his mother (Alice Fung So-Po) in part because it seems she doesn’t like his wife who has declined to attend this Winter Solstice dinner. When his mother suspects him of stealing money, Ming angrily storms out vowing never to contact her again and provoking a similar row between Ling and Chun in which she asks for a divorce. Pushed past his limit, Chun starts hacking at a chair with a meat cleaver and eventually strikes peacemaker Yeung who then abruptly severs ties with his dad and moves out on his own. 

Yet eight years later it’s Yeung who seems to be looking for a way back to his family only he doesn’t know how to find it. He’s been working on a virtual reality “game” that would allow users to interact with AI versions of absent friends and relatives, helping them to communicate rather than offering an escape from reality though that may be in a sense what Yeung is doing in interacting with a simulacrum of his father rather than facing him directly. His parents did not divorce, but are clearly unhappy. Ling has found another simulacrum for familial life working as a housekeeper for a wealthy single father, while Chun is driving a taxi and secretly planning to start again by leaving for Mainland China and a job in a company set up by an old friend. According to grandma it seems their marriage may have been semi-arranged (by her) and years of trying have seemingly not improved their inability to communicate with each other. 

Ki, meanwhile, has been married and divorced since the fateful Winter Solstice dinner over which grandma kept trying to marry her off explaining that she married a random man to escape her family only to boomerang back two years later when it didn’t work out. She too is lying to her parents, pretending to go to work every day despite having lost her job and later drifting into an unexpected romance with a free spirited nomad from Malaysia who jolts her out of her sense of inertia in telling her to try to be true to herself. The return of Ming’s now teenage daughter Joy (Angela Yuen Lai-Lam) from exile in England offers the opportunity to repair their fragmenting bonds, but it seems some wounds run too deep to ever be fully healed. Chun is pulled towards the Mainland just as Uncle Ming had been pulled towards England, while Yeung just wants to go “home” but doesn’t know how and Ling frantically tries to preserve a sense of family just as Ki seems to have made her peace to go wherever her heart takes her.

That might be one reason that there are only women around the dinner table at another Winter Solstice, for some the first, each trying to salvage something and try to get along if only in a superficial show of togetherness while the men attempt to talk through their troubles agreeing to head towards the dinner table but in the end walking in circles. The elegantly lensed final scene may suggest that the family is in someways trapped by its history yet destined to scatter but echoes in its ambiguity offering the distant hope of a far off reconciliation but little promise of its arrival. 

Hong Kong Family is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer (no subtitles)