Limbo (智齒, Soi Cheang, 2021)

“I forgive you. Please live well”, a final message from the dying to one attempting to survive the junkyard hellscape of contemporary Hong Kong. Soi Cheang’s stylish thriller Limbo (智齒), shot in a high contrast monochrome lending the city state the rain-soaked aesthetic of cyberpunk noir, is in many senses a purgatorial odyssey as its pregnant title implies sending its duo of morally compromised cops into a world of the dispossessed inhabited by those “thrown away” by their society and thereafter left to rot among the detritus of an uncaring city. 

Hong Kong’s homeless may occupy a liminal space, trapped in an inescapable limbo, but it’s grizzled cop Cham (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) who is the most arrested, unable to move on from the accident which left his pregnant wife suspended in a coma. To escape his own sense of purgatorial inertia, he seeks closure in chasing down petty criminal Wong To (Cya Liu) whom he holds responsible for his fate on discovering she has been granted early parole for good behaviour. As fate would have it, Wong To’s release back into the underworld (after all, where else was she to go?) has unexpected connection to the case Cham is currently investigating in the mysterious appearance of random severed hands each belonging to “social outcasts”, as Cham’s slick rookie partner puts it, they fear may hint at the existence of a serial killer growing in confidence. 

Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film’s Chinese title is simply “Wisdom Tooth”, a tongue in cheek reference to the ongoing toothache which places cop two Will Ren (Mason Lee) in his own kind of purgatorial pain, the offending molar eventually knocked out during his climactic fight with the killer during which he will in a sense transgress, passing from innocence to experience in gaining the wisdom that police work’s not as black and white as he may have believed it to be. “Cops are human too” his boss reminds him as he takes the controversial step of reporting his new partner for inappropriate use of force while pursuing a personal vendetta not exactly connected with his current case. He doesn’t disagree, but points out that police officers have guns and are supposed to uphold the law, not abuse their authority and take it into their own hands. 

But then, who is really responsible for the junkyards of the modern city and their ever increasing denizens abandoned by a society which chooses to discard them along with all their other “rubbish”, little different from the dismembered mannequins which people the killer’s eerie lair. Soi frequently cuts back to scenes of the dispossessed often looking stunned or vacant as they sit on mattresses or abandoned sofas surrounded by the pregnant disrepair of a city in the midst of remaking itself as if they were sitting on skin in the process of being shed by a slow moving snake. It would be tempting to assume the killer has a vendetta against “social outcasts”, his victims sex workers, drug users, and criminals though in truth these people are simply the most vulnerable even if there is no clear motive provided for the crimes save a minor maternal fixation and possible religious mania. A drug dealer ensnared by Cham’s net remains loyal to the killer, “We’re not as crazy as you. We are rubbish, so what? In this world, he’s the only one who cares.” she tells him, unwilling to give up her one source of connection even while aware of her constant proximity to death and violence. 

Cast into this world, Wong To too is trapped in an individual purgatory longing for forgiveness for her role in the death of Cham’s wife, a forgiveness he cruelly denies her even while making use of her desperation to force her to risk her life for him in betraying her underworld contacts to edge towards the killer. “Why are you treating me like this?” she asks, “I don’t want to die”, well aware that denied his direct vengeance by Will Cham is attempting to kill her by proxy. Wong To keeps running, keeps fighting, refuses to give up while seeking atonement and an escape from this broken world of violence and decay. It is she who eventually holds the key to an escape from purgatory, the cycle is ended only in forgiveness. Soi’s stylish drama may paint the modern society as a venal hellscape neglected by corrupt authority, but nevertheless permits a final ray of light in the possibility of liberation through personal redemption. 


Limbo streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)