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)

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決, Herman Yau, 2019)

132134ti38vkkj3p299ni8The war on drugs comes to Hong Kong care of Herman Yau’s latest foray into heroic action, White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決). In the grand tradition of Hong Kong movies adding a random prefix to the title, Drug Lords is a “thematic” sequel to Benny Chan’s 2013 hit White Storm, which is to say that it shares nothing at all with Chan’s film save the narcotics theme and the participation of Louis Koo who returns in an entirely different role. What Yau adds to the drama is a possibly irresponsible meditation on vigilante justice and extrajudicial killing which, nevertheless, broadly comes down on the side of the law as its dualist heroes eventually destroy each other in a nihilistic quest for meaningless vengeance.

A brief prologue in 2004 sees depressed Triad Yu Shun-tin (Andy Lau) abandoned by his girlfriend who can no longer put up with his gangster lifestyle and inability to break with his domineering mob boss uncle. Meanwhile, across town, flamboyant foot-soldier Dizang (Louis Koo) scolds one of his guys for supposedly selling drugs in the club, only to be picked up by Shun-tin’s uncle Nam (Kent Cheng) and severely punished for getting involved with the trafficking of narcotics. Nam orders Shun-tin to cut off Dizang’s fingers as punishment, which he does despite Dizang’s reminder that they’ve been friends for over 20 years. Conflicted, Shun-tin makes amends by driving Dizang to the hospital with his fingers in a freezer bag, but by this point Dizang has had enough. To teach him a lesson, the Triads also tip the police off to raid the club, during which the wife of squad leader Lam (Michael Miu) is killed by a drug addled patron.

15 years later, Shun-tin has left the Triads and become a successful businessman married to a beautiful lawyer/financial consultant (Karena Lam) with whom he has started an anti-drugs charity, while Dizang has become Hong Kong’s no. 1 drug dealer, operating out of a slaughterhouse as a cover. The trouble occurs when Shun-tin learns that his former girlfriend was pregnant when she left him and that he has a 15-year-old son in the Philippines who has become addicted to drugs. Drugs have indeed ruined Shun-tin’s life, if indirectly. His grandfather was an opium addict, and his father died of a heroine overdose (which is why his Triad gang swore off the drugs trade). All of which means he has good reason for hating drug dealers like Dizang, but his sudden admiration for Duterte’s famously uncompromising stance on drugs is an extraordinarily irresponsible one, especially when it leads to him embarrassing the HK police force by offering a vast bounty to anyone who can kill Hong Kong’s top drug dealer – a deadly competition that, like extrajudicial killings, seems primed to put ordinary people in the firing line.

As Lam tells him, the situation is absurd. Shun-tin’s bounty means Lam will have to spend more time offering protection to suspected drug dealers than actively trying to catch them while it also leaves Shun-tin in an awkward position as a man inciting murder and attempting to bypass the rule of law through leveraging his wealth. Indeed, as a man from the slums who’s been able to escape his humble origins and criminal family to become an international billionaire philanthropist he shows remarkably little consideration for the situation on the ground or the role the kind of ultra-capitalism he now represents has on perpetuating crime and drug use, preferring to think it’s all as simple as murdering drug lords rather than needing to actively invest in a creating a more equal society.

Meanwhile, Dizang continues to lord it about all over town and Lam finds himself an ineffectual third party caught between summary justice meted out by a man who thinks his wealth places him above the law and a gangster on a self-destructive bid for vengeance against the Triads he feels betrayed him, including his old friend Shun-tin. Truth be told, the “friendship” between Dizang and Shun-tin never rings true enough to provoke the kind of pathos the violent payoff seems to be asking for while the film is at times worryingly uncritical of Shun-tin’s vendetta, suggesting that the police are ill-equipped to deal with the destructive effects of the drug trade. Nevertheless, even if it’s to placate the Mainland censors, Yau ends on a more positive message that reinforces the nihilistic, internecine nature of the conflict while hinting, somewhat tritely, at a better solution in the sunny grasslands of the child drug rehabilitation centre Shun-tin has founded in Manila. That aside, Drug Lords is never less than thrilling in its audacious action set pieces culminating in a jaw dropping car chase through a perfect replica of the Central MTR subway station.


The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia. It will also screen as the closing movie of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

29+1 (Kearen Pang, 2016)

29+1 posterYou know what they call women over 25 in China? “Christmas cake” – no one wants you after the 25th, so you’re condemned to sit on the shelf for all eternity like a piece of overproduced seasonal confectionary (a silly analogy because Christmas cakes, at least English ones, may outlive us all). Christy Lam lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China, and so her worries are a little less intense but still the dreaded 30 is causing its own share of panic and confusion in her otherwise orderly, tightly controlled life. In 29+1 Kearen Pang adapts her own enormously successful 2005 stage play about the intertwined lives of two very different women who happen to share a birthday and are each approaching the end of their 20s in very different ways. By turns melancholy and hopeful, 29+1 finds both women at a natural crossroads but rather than casting them into a bottomless pit of despair, allows each of them to rediscover themselves through a kind of second adolescence in which they finally figure out what it is they want out of life.

Christy Lam’s (Chrissie Chau) morning routine is fairly well entrenched. The alarm clock ticks over from 6.29 to 6.30 and she rises, goes through her beauty regime, decides on an appropriate outfit for work, eats a low cal breakfast and then heads out. A month before her 30th birthday, Christy begins to feel restless but her life is good – she has a long-term boyfriend and she’s just received a promotion at work where she is both liked and respected for her talents. So why does she feel so…unsatisfied?

Like the grim harbinger of encroaching doom, the rot has already set in as symbolised by a leak in her apartment which has created a nasty stain on her pristine white walls and even spread to some of her precious handbags. Her landlord pledges to look at it, but unbeknownst to Christy his wife has sold the apartment she’s been renting and she’s being kicked out with no notice. The landlord suggests moving in with her boyfriend but this proves unattractive for several reasons and so Christy ends up house sitting for a friend of the landlord’s nephew who is spending a month in Paris giving Christy some breathing space to figure things out.

Offering frequent asides to the audience, Christy’s acerbic observations of modern life and the expectations placed on women are both familiar and extremely funny. Running through her daily routine with wry irony, it’s clear Christy resents having to jump through all these hoops but also accepts them as just a part of being 29 in 2005. Catching a bus the morning after finding the leak in her apartment, she finds a former professor, now an insurance salesman, sitting across the aisle. After somewhat tactlessly remarking that she looks “completely different” from her college self, the professor then goes on to ask all the impolite questions people ask 29-year-old women as regards her job and marital status before getting into pension plans and mortgages. His insurance pitch proves a hit, and every other youngish woman (and one man acting on behalf of a little sister) picks up one of his information packs too.

At work at least, Christy is faring a little better. Unexpectedly receiving a promotion from her infinitely likeable if hardline boss, Elaine (Elaine Jin), Christy feels conflicted. The job is everything she thought she wanted, but suddenly she feels out-of-place – disconnected from her former colleagues and only now picking up on the immense gulf between herself, preparing to enter middle age with strict diets and bundling up to fight the aggressive air conditioning, and the new recruits – cheerfully wolfing down cakes and sugary drinks, dressed only in their light summer dresses and gossiping or boasting about slacking off even to the boss’ face. Despite her success Elaine is an approachable and friendly woman, prepared to give some real advice to her young protégé to the end that there are choices involved in everything and sometimes it comes to the point you need to make them rather than let things drag on.

Choices are things Christy’s avoided making, despite approaching life with an intense need for control. Facing several crises at once from her father’s Alzheimer’s to a strained relationship with her boyfriend of ten years, Christy is forced into a position she might not have welcomed but grudgingly admits may actually have been for the best. The apartment she ends up living in temporarily belongs to a young woman named Wong Ting-lok (Joyce Cheng) and, in contrast to Christy’s former home, is filled with a quirky sense of personality from the large Eiffel Tower of Polaroids pinned to the wall to the Leslie Cheung VHS collection and large number of vinyl records all of which Christy is welcome to enjoy. It is, however, Tin-lok’s “autobiography” that comes to capture her attention.

Tin-lok is a woman defined by her love of life and innate talent for cheerfulness even in adversity. Unlike Christy, her life has been less marked by the conventionally “successful” as she’s held down the same casual job in a record store run by a former celebrity for the past ten years and has never had a proper boyfriend despite her close friendship with Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi) – the nephew of Christy’s landlord. Sometimes her lack of progress gets her down which explains the diary and the Polaroids – she likes to record her “achievements” in a more concrete way, but Tin-lok is, broadly, at home with herself. A recent crisis striking just as Christy’s had, prompts her into action – doing the things she’d always wanted to do in the knowledge that every moment is precious and there is no time to waste.

Pang gradually shifts into a kind of magical realism as the lives of Christy and Tin-lok begin to merge with Christy experiencing the life of Tin-lok from a first person perspective. Both women re-live old memories, inserting their current selves into a long passed era and looking back at it both with wistful nostalgia and the immediacy of unforgotten feeling. Christy’s trusted taxi driver laments that young people don’t know how to fix things anymore, every time something breaks they throw it out and buy a new one. Christy is learning how to make repairs to fractured dreams but thanks to some help from the resilient warmth of Tin-lok, finally figures out that things fall into place when you let them and you don’t have to make all your decisions based on what others have already decided for you.


Original trailer (English subtitles)