My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, 1989)

“Now no one owes anything to anyone” a petty gangster ironically states on completing an errand for a friend in Patrick Tam’s heroic bloodshed off-shoot My Heart is that Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢). As the name perhaps implies, Tam’s film is less brotherhood than tragic romance as the fatalism of the noirish gangster world ruled by debt if not by honour conspires against love, not only romantic but filial and brotherly, in its infinite web of violence and futility.

Pinching a classic noir narrative, the picture opens in a cheerful waterside tavern run by former gangster Uncle Cheung (Kwan Hoi-Shan) where carefree gambler Rick (Kenny Bee) is in love with the old man’s daughter Lap (Joey Wong Cho-Yee) who works behind the bar. Uncle Cheung thinks he’s escaped the triad world, but the past is not done with him. Approached by local tough guy Law (Gam Lui), Uncle Cheung is made an offer he can’t refuse to help smuggle Law’s son (Cheung Tat-ming) to Hong Kong from the mainland. He asks Rick to pitch in as the driver and recruits corrupt cop Tang (Ng Man-tat) to help him get past the checkpoints. But Law’s kid is a chatterbox, excited to be in Hong Kong and eagerly boring everyone with his future plans to become a famous singer. Unwisely he drops his father’s name and rouses Tang’s interest. Tang makes the gang pull off at a rest stop so he can strong arm Uncle Cheung into ringing Law to up his pay, but the loudmouth kid jumps the gun, literally, and gets himself killed. Tang turns on Rick and Uncle Cheung to clear up loose ends but Rick kills him, escaping with Uncle Cheung and leaving the old lady at the rest stop to clean up the mess. Left with no choice but to flee, the trio arrange passage to the Philippines but Uncle Cheung is snatched by Law before they can leave. Lap is forced to make a deal with rival kingpin Godfather Shen (Michael Chan Wai-man) to save her dad, putting Rick on the boat with a promise to meet him later but knowing that she will likely never escape Shen’s grasp.

Six years pass, during which Lap becomes Shen’s right-hand woman entertaining wealthy Japanese businessmen in his swanky club as a singer and hostess. Consumed by guilt and remorse in knowing his daughter continues to pay the price for his mistake, Uncle Cheung has become a drunken liability while Lap is lost in romantic melancholy, mooning over the ruined love of her youth and dreaming that some day Rick may return and take her away from all this. Meanwhile, innocent rookie (confusingly also named) Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has fallen in love with her, captivated by her sadness and the futility of her life with Shen. Of course, Rick, having become a hit man, eventually returns leading to a confrontation not just with Shen but with the triad world itself. 

In the gangster universe, everyone owes something to someone. Debt is a kind of currency, and every bargain accrues its particular kind of interest. Lap is forced to sacrifice herself to save the men she loves by trading the only currency she has, her body, knowing that in doing so she destroys the possibility of a happy romantic future with Rick in order to keep him safe. Six years later she thinks she’s paid her debt to Shen, he has plenty of other women what difference can keeping her captive make? But that’s not the way the gangster world works. Shen merely gifts her to the psychotic underling who propositioned her on their first meeting and moments earlier had tried to betray his boss by raping her. Only Cheung, pure hearted and naive, is uncorrupted by the venal cruelty of the triad world, consumed by a truly selfless love that sees him determined to help Lap escape and save her future with Rick. 

This selfless love, however, eventually creates another debt in the moral dilemma faced by the lovers who know that if they escape alone they leave Cheung at the mercy of Shen while to return spells certain death. Co-shot by Christopher Doyle, Tam’s moral universe is lit by the red-tinted glow of the neo-noir, a dizzying yet melancholy world of violence and futility in which freeze frames and ethereal dissolves hint at the transient meaninglessness of the triad life where love and death go hand in hand while betrayal is an ever present companion. Only those sufficiently uncorrupted by the moral duplicities of an increasingly bankrupt existence are permitted to survive, but even so emerge beaten, wounded, and pale with loss literally at sea perpetual exiles without home or harbour.


Original trailer (Dialogue free, contains major spoilers)

An Inspector Calls (浮華宴, Raymond Wong & Herman Yau, 2015)

Inspector Calls poster 1J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls found itself out of favour until a phenomenally successful stage production brought it back into the national consciousness in the early ‘90s, but even if some decry its inherent melodrama as a relic of another era the play’s comments on the entrenched classism of British society sadly still ring true. An Inspector Calls is many things, but one thing it defiantly is not is funny – a series of concentric tales of betrayals and oppressions, Priestley’s drama lays bare the callousness with which the privileged bolster their position through the story of one faceless factory girl standing in for an entire social class whose lives are often at the mercy of those “above” them.

In adapting Priestley’s play as a Chinese New Year movie (a strange concept in itself), Herman Yau and Raymond Wong relocate to contemporary Hong Kong, re-conceiving it as a broad comedy of the kind one might expect for the festive period. The setup is however still the same. The Kau family will be receiving a visitation – this time from Inspector Karl (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who has some difficult news for each of them. Three hours previously, a young woman committed suicide in her apartment by drinking bleach, taking the child she was carrying with her. Inspector Karl views this as a double murder and, based on the diary they found at the crime scene, has brought the reckoning over to the Kaus’.

The Kaus, at the present time, are preparing an engagement party for daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) who will be marrying the handsome younger brother of a factory owner, Johnnie (Hans Zhang Han). What no one can know is that the family business is going under, the Kaus are broke, mum and dad don’t get on, and all of this finery is merely rented affectation. The only member of the family who still seems to have something like a social conscience – Tim (Gordon Lam Ka-tung), the 27-year-old younger son, is viewed by all as a feckless and naive hippy, hiding out in his childhood bedroom, still all fluffy cushions and toy soldiers.

As the Inspector explains, he holds Mr Kau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) responsible because the woman once worked in his factory and he fired her for participating in a strike for better pay and conditions. Sherry got her fired too when she worked in an upscale fashion store. Johnnie knew her during an unfortunate period as a bar hostess, and Tim as a masseuse. Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan), who heads up a woman’s charity and publicly espouses tolerance while privately judgmental, once turned her down for familial support seeing as the father of her child was still living. She advises holding him to account and if he won’t pay, forcing his family to take responsibility on his behalf. The irony being that the father is likely her own son and that if this poor woman had rocked up at the Kaus’ with a sad story and an infant in her arms, she would have been met with nothing more than contempt save perhaps some hush money to send her on her way.

The Kaus are merely a series of examples of the various ways the wealthy mistreat the poor, wielding their sense of entitlement like a weapon. Yau and Wong adopt an oddly Brechtian approach in their expressionist production design with the faceless masses identified only through titles – the word “labour” on the workers’ caps, “manager” in the fashion store, “secretary” at the foundation. None of these people are really worthy of names because they will always be “less” while the Kaus are “more” in more ways than one. Actions, however, have consequences. The family console themselves that this is all far too coincidental, that they couldn’t all have known the “same” woman in different guises, but that in many ways is the point – she isn’t one woman but all women, used, abused, and discarded not only by heartless men but by jealous and judgemental members of her own sex too. Better than her than me, they might say, but that’s no way to run a healthy society as the sensitive, slightly damaged Tim seems to see.

Like the Birlings, the Kaus attempt to brush the Inspector’s warning off, thinking it’s all been some elaborate prank that can they laugh about and then forget, but there will be a reckoning even if they attempt to gloss over the various revelations regarding their moral failings. Wong and Yau’s vague gesturing towards the outlandish greed of the hypocritical super wealthy is undercut by the ridiculous New Year slapstick of it all despite the Metropolis-like production design and expressionist trappings, giving in to an excess of its own in an extremely unexpected musical cameo from a martial arts star and the decision to end on a social realist photo of an innocent, pigtailed proletarian woman dressed in red. Nevertheless, strange as it all is the bizarre adaptation of Priestley’s play has its own peculiar charm even if it’s outrageousness rather than moral outrage which takes centre stage.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

A Home with a View (家和萬事驚, Herman Yau, 2019)

Home with a view poster 2Everyone needs an oasis. It might be a mirage, but still you need to believe in it anyway or with the world the way it is you might just go crazy. For the Lo family, that oasis was their tiny harbour view for which they paid handsomely even though their home could be described as modest at best. Relying on the calming vision of the sea to preserve their peace of mind, the family are constantly preoccupied by the rapid increase in high rise apartment buildings which threaten it, but did not bank on a cynical businessman setting up home on the rooftop opposite and putting up a giant advertising billboard to make a few extra pennies.

Adapting the stage play by Cheung Tat-ming, Herman Yau uses the woes of the Lo family to satirise the effects of Hong Kong’s ongoing housing crisis as they find themselves living in a cramped apartment block where everyone seems to have problems but no inclination to mind their own business. Mrs. Lo, Suk-yin (Anita Yuen Wing-yi), is fed up with the butcher (Lam Suet) who lives directly above them and his habit of loudly mincing pork while she’s trying to eat her dinner in peace, while the kids – son Bun-hong (Ng Siu-hin) and daughter Yu-sze (Jocelyn Choi), resent the intrusion of cigarette smoke wafting up from the flat below belonging to an elderly resident whose oasis is presumably tobacco. Meanwhile, Grandpa (Cheung Tat-ming) is in poor health and in the process of losing his marbles all of which makes for a very exciting home environment where chaos rules and there is always something new to bicker about.

Family patriarch, Wai-man (Francis Ng Chun-yu), sunk considerable expense into buying this apartment because of its sea view. In fact he’s still paying off a hefty mortgage which is why the family is engaged in a money saving competition where they challenge each other to come up with the best schemes and bargains, but he is at heart a kindhearted man which is perhaps why he finds himself handing over a huge wad of cash to pay off the overdue rent of the lady next-door who was threatening to commit suicide rather than risk eviction with her husband seemingly having disappeared off somewhere leaving her alone with her young son. He is not, however, above jamming with the system and is himself an estate agent peddling “low cost” subdivided flats with no widows or kitchens and only access to communal bathrooms in disused but not quite redeveloped former industrial buildings.

Desperate to reclaim their access to serenity, the family set about trying to get the cynical businessman opposite, Wong (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to take the billboard down but he proves smug and indifferent to their plight. In fact, his resentment towards those who can afford swanky sea view apartments is one of the reasons he put the billboard up in the first place so he’s not about to take it down just because he’s realised its presence is inconsiderate. Trying to get the authorities, including an old friend with a longstanding crush on Suk-yin, involved proves largely fruitless with the family locked into a bureaucratic nightmare which saps all their energy and only drives them all crazier even as they begin to unite in pooling their efforts to outsmart Wong who insists the billboard is “art” which he made himself and enriches the city.

The intersection between art and advertising, as well as mild motion towards both things as acts of protest, is only one of the film’s meta touches, but its main theme is indeed family and the various ways the modern society both frustrates and cements it. The Los who were always at each other’s throats, became calm sitting together gazing out at the peaceful harbour but later returned to their individual spheres before reuniting in conflict. Meanwhile, we discover that Wong has a sad story of his own which paints him as a lonely man without a family who likes the attention the billboard has brought him because it’s finally forced people to acknowledge his existence. Rather than managing to make friends with him, the Los descend further into their psychotic fury as they try to defeat Wong, ironically rediscovering their family solidarity in the process. “In this terrible world only family can protect us”, Grandpa says, and in this crazy cutthroat society he may be right. Perhaps the best course of action is to all go mad together rather than try to resist the craziness.


A Home with a View was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌, Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)

love in a puffSmokers. Is there a more maligned, ostracised group in the modern world? Considering the rapid pace at which their “harmless” pastime has become unacceptable, you can understand why they might feel particularly put out – literally, as they find themselves taking refuge in designated smoking areas or perhaps back allies where it seems no one’s looking. For all the nostalgia about how easy it was to strike up a friendship with a stranger just by asking for a light, it is also important to remember that smoking is not so “harmless” after all and there are reasons why smokers are asked to keep their activities amongst those who’ve also decided to ignore the warnings. The Smoking Ordinance, oddly enough, may have accidentally boosted the social potential of a smoke as those eager for a puff are given additional reasons to spend time together in an enclosed space, building a sense of community through nicotine addiction.

Pang Ho-cheung’s landmark romantic comedy Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌) takes this idea to its natural conclusion as recently dumped ad exec Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and trapped in a going nowhere relationship cosmetics girl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) begin to bond over a cigarette or two taken in a back ally near Jimmy’s office. Actually, Cherie doesn’t event work here, she’s wandered over and found a collection of kindred spirits whilst trying to avoid being spotted by her boss who thinks smoking is bad for your skin (not great when you’re supposed to be a walking advert for the makeup you’re pushing). Whilst the other guys and girls gossip about Jimmy’s great failed romance – his girlfriend cheated on him with and then left him for a Frenchman who has a better job in the company, Cherie listens patiently even though she’s clearly outside of this tight social circle. For Jimmy, this might be just what he needs – a breath of fresh (well, differently perfumed) air that has almost nothing to do with his current circle of work based friends.

Nothing in particular happens but the pair grow closer as they both attempt to escape the less satisfying elements of their lives. Relying on text messages delivered in a mix of text speak English and Chinese, Jimmy and Cherie message each other when they get bored – he eating hot pot with colleagues, she trapped at a fancy dress karaoke party, getting together to waste time but each unwilling to consider what any of this means. Eventually Cherie decides to make a real decision, but predictably enough, Jimmy freaks out and jumps on the brakes only to realise his hasty reaction might have been mistaken.

The tone is light and playful as Pang trolls the audience by beginning as a horror movie complete with dripping blood credits and scary music. The sequence turns out to be just one of the silly stories they gang entertain each other with during their cigarette breaks – in fact this one is a staple of Indian pizza delivery boy Bitta who tells it every time a new girl shows up. The grisly opening sequence even makes a fun return as Jimmy uses it to prank Cherie bringing them closer together whilst also highlighting his boyish, irreverent character. These same qualities which help Jimmy get through to Cherie may also be among the reasons his previous girlfriend ended the relationship, becoming bored with his familiar antics such as his strange love of buying ice-cream in a convenience store solely for the dry ice which likes to put in the toilet to enjoy the incongruous smoke effects.

Laid-back in style, Pang allows the back and forth between the leads to take centre stage whilst peppering the edges with a collection of background details about their friends and social lives. Cutting to a series of direct to camera documentary-style interviews, Pang adds a layer of commentary about modern love and relationships which extends right into the end credits with a hopeful man’s strange story about a girlfriend’s dog, all of which has the ring of authenticity even if occasionally mean-spirited as in its mocking of a plain girl stood up by an online date deceived by her overly flattering profile picture.

Love comes creeping and Jimmy and Cherie dance around each other, unable to speak plainly but occasionally moving forward through grand gestures. Each assuring the other they’re “in no hurry”, the great gateway to future happiness appears not with the traditional declaration of love but the “simple and straightforward” “I miss you”. Surprisingly cute and innocent for a Cat III comedy, Love in a Puff is an inconsequential tale of love blossoming in smokey city backstreets between a girl who’s tired of waiting and a guy who doesn’t know where he’s going but together they might just be able to figure it all out.


Love in a Puff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)