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)

The Crossing (过春天, Bai Xue, 2018)

The Crossing posterReally, when it comes right down to it, a border is not much more than an imaginary line drawn across a piece of paper intended to bring order to a formless world. People have fought and died over the positioning of such lines for centuries, but then when all is said and done the boundaries which matter most are the internal ones and everybody has their lines they will not cross. An internal war over the nature of that line is very much at the centre of Bai Xue’s melancholy coming of age drama The Crossing (过春天, Guò Chūntiānin which a young girl living a life on top of borders geographical, emotional, and legal, begins to discover herself only through transgression.

It’s Peipei’s (Huang Yao) 16th birthday, but the most important fact about that for her is that she is now of legal working age and can get a part-time job. Peipei’s parents split up some time ago and now she lives with her flighty mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen while attending a posh high school in Hong Kong where she doesn’t quite fit in considering her comparatively humble background. This is brought home to her by her insensitive best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants the pair to go on holiday together to Japan at Christmas while full-well knowing that there is no way Peipei can get the money together in time. Desperate to go, Peipei has been selling cellphone cases at school and now has her part-time job but it’s all very slow going. When Jo convinces her to bunk off and party with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells she ends up getting herself involved in a cellphone smuggling operation thanks to Jo’s no good boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun). 

Peipei’s problem is the time old one of falling in with the wrong crowd, but then we most often catch her alone and it’s a lonely figure she cuts through the busy streets of her bifurcated world. Young but tough and angry, Peipei thinks she knows what she’s doing but is caught on the difficult dividing line between adolescence and adulthood and her attempts to claim her independence are filled with determined naivety. Resentful of her mother’s seeming indifference and parade of useless boyfriends, she wants to grow up as soon as possible but it’s not so much the daring and adventure that draws her into the orbit of Sister Hua’s (Elena Kong may-yee) gang of thieves as the camaraderie. Peipei likes being part of a “family”, she likes the maternal attentions of the spiky Sister Hua, and she likes being valuable even if on some level she realises that her usefulness will fade and that her growing loyalty to the gang is largely one sided.

“The big fish eat the little fish. Never trust men” Sister Hua later advises her, and it is indeed good advice if offered a little too late. Peipei knows she’s a little a fish, which is perhaps why she sympathises so strongly with the miniature shark trapped in a tank at the palatial mansion owned by Jo’s absentee aunt. Nevertheless, she tries to swim free only to find herself sinking ever deeper into a murky underworld she is ill-equipped to understand. Her first anxious crossing with a handful of iPhones in her backpack is a fraught affair, but carrying it off without a hitch an oddly empowering experience. Even so, when Sister Hua considers swapping the phones for a gun Peipei hesitates. In essence it’s the same – perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, and Sister Hua’s “love” is indeed dependent on a job well done, but the stakes here are sky high. It’s not such a fun game anymore, as Peipei realises spotting a badly wounded gang member hovering outside having apparently received punishment for some kind of transgression.

Meanwhile she finds herself in another kind of interstitial space altogether when caught between best friend Jo and bad boy Hao. Jo, spoilt and self-centred, assumes her family will send her abroad to study and is later shocked by the realisation that her sexist dad thinks she’s not worth it, expects her to marry young in Hong Kong, and intends to invest all the money in her brother instead. Jo didn’t care much for Hao before and even jokingly offered to bequeath him to Peipei when she left, but now all her dreams are crumbling and she suspects he’s losing interest it’s a different story. Playing with fire, Peipei finds herself drawn to Hao who becomes something between white knight and big brother figure in the confusing world of crime until his protective instincts begin to bubble into something else. The pair bicker flirtatiously but also shift into a shared space born of their mutual dissatisfaction and desire to gain access to the Hong Kong inhabited by the likes of Jo whose vast wealth has left her blind to her own privilege.

Peipei crosses lines with giddy excitement, but only through burning her bridges does she begin to discover her own identity caught as she is between Hong Kong and China, between rich and poor, between the going somewheres and not, and between innocence and experience as her exciting adventure in the world of crime eventually blows up in her face. A rather strange title card informing us that efforts to limit smuggling at the border have been redoubled (seemingly ripped right out of the Mainland censor’s notebook) finally gives way to something calmer and more meditative as Peipei awakens to a new understanding of herself and the world in which she lives, looking out instead of up and ahead rather than behind as she resolves to keep moving forward as if there were no more lines to be crossed.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)