Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔, Sunny Chan, 2018)

Men on the dragon posterLife is tough for the middle-aged man in contemporary Hong Kong, at least according to the directorial debut from screenwriter Sunny Chan, Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔). Economic woes, a precarious employment environment, familial strife, and elusive Andy Lau tickets all conspire to make our guys feel powerless in a society that seems primed to crush their spirits. Can dragon boating really help put their fire back in their bellies? Conventional wisdom would say no, but then there is something about physically demanding team sports that is particularly good at inflaming individual desires.

Pegasus Broadband is about to announce another round of mass layoffs which has each of our heroes worried. Participating in a mini protest strike puts them straight in the firing line (even if they were clever enough not to write their real names on the petition forms), but when they’re seemingly lucky enough to escape the axe for now at least they think they can breathe easy. An unexpected call from the boss instructing them to appear at a mysterious location with swimming trunks in hand even has them wondering if they’re being given some kind of bribe to play nice but as it turns out the reverse is true. Pegasus Broadband wants to improve its public image and has decided to do that by entering a team in the upcoming dragon boat races. The race, which they fully expect to win, will be streamed live online to demonstrate the company’s infrastructural superiority. Fearing they’ll be bumped up the redundancy list if they refuse, our guys resign themselves to becoming unlikely dragon boat champions but end up discovering unexpected sides of their potential which prove essential in solving their individual crises.

Suk-yi (Poon Chan Leung), bespectacled and mild-mannered, is the least athletic of the Pegasus Broadband employees but is half grateful for the dragon boating opportunity because it gets him out of the house where his wife and mother constantly bicker while his small daughters can’t stop fighting. Feeling pushed out and unwelcome in his house full of angry women, Suk-yi is desperately looking for some kind of escape or possibility of reasserting his authority which he begins to find while training for the dragon boat races and nursing a small crush on the pretty coach, Dorothy (Jennifer Yu). Meanwhile, Lung (Francis Ng) is unmarried but has found himself in an awkward non-relationship with the woman next-door for whom he cooks and cleans, even taking care of her moody teenage daughter. He dreams of making a real family but lacks both the courage and financial resources to make a move. The youngest of the gang, William (Tony Wu), has the opposite problem in that he’s given up his dream of being a top Ping Pong player to build a future with his girlfriend but begins to realise that he hasn’t given up on his athletic hopes while boss Tai (Kenny Wang) is secretly torn apart by the worry that his wife is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

All four guys have found themselves swept along by the current of modern Hong Kong, coasting without aim or purpose but filled with middle-aged anxiety as they wonder where the river is taking them and if it’s already too late to change the destination. Suk-yi’s dilemma is perhaps the most cliched of the three as he contemplates swapping his disharmonious household for the unattainable charms of an idealised younger woman while Lung chases easy familial bliss, Tai tries to repair a relationship corrupted by modern social pressures, and William wonders if it’s worth giving up a part of yourself to make a relationship work knowing that kernel of resentment will only grow with time. Men on the Dragon is, in this sense, a very “male” story in which four put upon men feel themselves emasculated by oppressive social forces yet learn to rediscover their “manhood” through the intensely physical act of dragon boating.

They are however guided along by an austere young woman who bangs the drum to which they must all march. This is not Dorothy’s story and she gets short shrift among all the guys but there’s something interesting in the fact that she had to hire a “male foreigner” to pretend to be the “real” coach because no one would hire a female dragon boater despite her impressive list of qualifications and credentials. Gently rebuffing Suk-yi’s interest, she nevertheless guides him towards a confrontation he’d long been avoiding in reasserting himself in his own household, restoring his standing in his wife’s eyes and brokering piece with his feisty mother who can’t seem to get on with her Mainland daughter-in-law. It’s the rhythm of life that’s important, Dorothy reminds the guys – you don’t get anywhere unless you’re all pulling together. That might sound like we’re back where we started, being swept along in a mass current without control or direction but it’s individual will which drives the communal enterprise and there can be no progress without agency. Not all dreams work out, but you won’t know unless you try and at least if you crash and burn there are plenty of guys waiting to pull you out of the water.


Men on the Dragon made its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Line Walker (使徒行者, Jazz Boon, 2016)

When sitcoms make the transition to the big screen, they usually do so by going on holiday. Police procedurals are no different as Line Walker (使徒行者), a cinematic outing for a wildly popular Hong Kong TV series, proves by throwing its hat into the global ring with a Brazil bound drug based gang war. Taking more than a little inspiration from the classic undercover cop drama Infernal Affairs, Line Walker joins former undercover officer Ding and her handler Q as they receive a mysterious message from a missing operative identifying himself only as “Blackjack”.

Two years ago (as detailed in the TV series), a top Hong Kong detective, Hong, managed to find just enough time before being murdered to wipe all his data relating to officers currently working deep cover. Ditzy cop Ding (Charmaine Sheh) was one such asset, and together with her boyfriend who is also her boss, Q (Francis Ng), managed to round up and bring in all the other operatives save one whose file was corrupted beyond recovery. Therefore when they receive a message written in Hong’s unique code signed “Blackjack” they are cautiously optimistic.

The trail leads them to a corporatised Triad gang currently engaged in the usual Triad business of petty gang wars over drugs, territory, and power. Shiu (Louis Koo) and Lam (Nick Cheung) are best buds and underlings in the organisation with their eyes on bigger prizes. Making a trip to Brazil to broker a drugs deal the pair get themselves into various kinds of trouble which is only compounded by the “Blackjack” issue and suspicions of a possible mole in the gang.

Ding and Q are the only returning characters from the TV series which has received significant upgrades in the big screen jump with the addition of several Hong Kong superstars including Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. Though the central narrative stands alone, there is a degree of assumed familiarity with the ongoing backstory which is at times frustrating for the uninitiated but never much of a barrier. Line Walker does, however, suffer from the common pitfalls of the TV show making the jump into the cinematic world in that it can’t shake the artificial largeness of the small screen.

After beginning with a broadly comic sequence as Ding chases down Blackjack in a Macao casino whilst making time for slapstick pratfalls along the way, the tone progressively darkens until the final, gritty action based finale. Though the banter between the bickering couple Q and Ding is never less than amusing, Ding’s cutesy airhead routine feels out of place with the general tone of the rest of the film especially as she is also supposedly part of a team of elite undercover police officers.

In attempting to up the ante, Line Walker’s scriptwriters have thrown in twists and turns at every juncture as more and more diehard criminals suddenly confess that they are, in fact, undercover police officers. No one is telling the whole truth as double crosses and betrayals dominate the action with an overt Infernal Affairs homage set in the Olympic stadium. Frankly, it all borders on the ridiculous as plot twist plies on plot twist with predictable regularity though it does at least make things exciting.

Exciting is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the action set pieces which attempt to make the most of the cinematic budget. The most high profile of these are the Brazil set sequences filled with shootouts and car chases not to mention precision timed chain reactions of exploding vehicles used as bombs. The physical fights are impressively visceral but occasionally contrived. In one notable instance two men are attacked by a lone assassin armed only with a knife but almost allow themselves to be stabbed for no reason at all. When they do fight back, they do so one on one rather simply taking down the opponent by overwhelming him with their combined strength.

Caught between comedy crime caper and gritty heroic bloodshed, Line Walker can’t make either approach work leading to an abrupt and unsatisfying, if artistically pleasing, finale. Koo and Cheung do their best as the brothers in crime duo each realising that they can’t quite go through with betraying the other, moving from easy banter in the first half to angst ridden glares in the second, but they’re in a different picture from the sunny world of Ding and Q who are still stuck in the TV screen. Though the overworked plot and variable tone create serious problems, Line Walker does at least offer impressive action with a thin layer of comedy even if it fails to hit its emotional target.


Original trailer (English subtitles)