Trivisa (樹大招風, Frank Hui & Jevons Au & Vicky Wong, 2016)

Trivisa posterIt’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate the fact that a film named for the three Buddhist poisons – delusion, desire, and fury, is intended as a criticism of Hong Kong as an SAR that revels in the glory and subsequent downfall of three famous criminals who discover that crime does not pay right on the eve of the handover. Mentored by Johnnie To, Trivisa (樹大招風) is directed by three young hopefuls discovered through his Fresh Wave program each of whom directs one of the film’s three story strands which revolve around a trio of famous Hong Kong criminals.

Back in the ‘80s, as Mrs. Thatcher delivers her pledges on the Hong Kong handover, King of Thieves Kwai Ching-hung (Gordon Lam) gets stopped by a random police patrol, kills the officers, and then has to fake his identity to escape. 15 years later he’s a petty mobile phone trafficker dreaming of pulling off a big score. Meanwhile, Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), once known for his AK47 brandishing robberies is a “legitimate businessman” smuggling black market electronics into Hong Kong and bribing Mainland officials to do it, while Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) is a flamboyant gangster revelling in underworld glory and dreaming of eternal fame.

Rather than weave the three stories into one coherent whole or run them as entirely separate episodes, the three strands run across and through each other only to briefly reunite in the ironic conclusion. The most famous of the three real life criminals, Kwai Ching-hung’s arc is perhaps the most familiar though rather than fighting an existential battle against his bad self, Kwai’s quest is to regain his title as Hong Kong’s most audacious thief. To do this, he’s reunited with an old friend and comrade in arms who’s retired from the life and married a Thai woman with whom he has an adorable little daughter. Unbeknownst to him, Kwai has not come for old times’ sake but is taking advantage of the fact that the family live directly opposite his latest score. Employing two Mainland mercenaries, Kwai has his eyes on the prize but his friend is wilier than he remembered, is quickly suspicious of Kwai’s friendship with his daughter, and has his suspicions confirmed when he finds his kid’s backpack full of guns.

Yip’s story, by contrast, is one of diminished expectations and ongoing financial woes. An early scene at a restaurant finds Yip in the company of Mainland officials to whom he must scrape and bow, placating them with various bribes and engaging in the strange trade of precious vases which seems to pass as currency among corrupt civil servants. Corporate shenanigans and business disputes, however, are no substitute for good old fashioned firefights and Yip’s frustration with his new career is sure to lead to some kind of explosion at some point in time.

Cheuk becomes the lynchpin of the three as he takes an advantage of a rumour that the three “Kings of Thieves” are getting together to plan a giant heist to track down the other two and see if he can make it work for real. The most successful and happiest in his life, Cheuk has made his fortune out of ostentatious crime – kidnapping the sons of the extremely wealthy for hearty ransoms. He is, however, bored and dreams of making a giant splash which will ensure his name remains in the history books for evermore – i.e., blowing up the Queen.

Facing the approaching handover, each is aware the world will change, unsure as to how they’re in the process of trying to secure their futures either way. Kwai wants one last heist, Yip has already begun courting Chinese business, and Cheuk just wants to be the face in all the papers across the entire Chinese world. Kwai’s sin is “desire” – he wants one last hit as a criminal mastermind and he’s willing to take advantage of his friend (and even his friend’s young daughter) to get it, Yip’s sin is “fury” as dealing with constant humiliation leaves him longing for his AK 47, and Cheuk’s failing is “delusion” in his all encompassing need to be the big dog around town, all flashy suits and toothy grins. On the eve of the handover they all meet a reckoning – betrayal, a stupid and pointless death, or merely ridiculous downfall.

The heyday of crime has, it seems, ended but that’s definitely a bad thing, laying bare a change in dynamics between nations and a decline in the kind of independence which allows the flourishing of a criminal enterprise. Bearing To’s hallmark in its tripartite structure, ironic comments on fate and connection, and eventual decent into random gun battle, Trivisa is a ramshackle exploration of a watershed moment in which even hardened criminals must learn to live in a brave new world or risk being consumed by it.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gallants (打擂台, Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)

Gallants PosterLike the master at the centre of Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s Gallants (打擂台), old school martial arts movies have been in a deep sleep since their Shaw Brothers heyday. Drawing inspiration from the kung fu films of old, Gallants is a tale of buried heroism suddenly reawakening and the risks of writing off veteran challengers just because of their age. It’s also a tribute to those perhaps more innocent times and, in contrast to a prevailing trend, a true Hong Kong film filled with typically Cantonese (sometimes untranslatable humour) and meta references to the area’s long cinematic history.

For a brief moment in his childhood, Cheung (Wong You-nam) was the unbeatable superhero who never lost a fight. These days, he’s a nerdy loser who sometimes hides under his desk to escape his angry boss. Despatched by the shady real estate company he works for, Cheung is sent back to his rural hometown entrusted with the mission of convincing the local population to surrender their homes so the developers can build a large scale complex. Whilst there he gets attacked by local punks only to be saved by an old guy who has immense kung fu skills.

The old guy turns out to be one of two living in a ramshackle tea house that used to be a martial arts studio. Tiger (Leung Siu-lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) turned the Gate of Law into a teahouse to make ends meet while their legendary sifu, Master Law (Teddy Robin), has been in a coma for the last 30 years. When a fight breaks out and the old guys get to strut their stuff against a local kingpin, Cheung decides to petition them to take him on as a pupil. In a classic case of bad timing, Cheung is around when the teahouse is raided again and someone attacks Master Law causing him to wake up and act as if the last 30 years never happened. He thinks Cheung is both of his young pupils, Tiger and Dragon, in one and that the real 30 years older versions of Tiger and Dragon are some random old guys Cheung has agreed to train out of pity.

If you don’t fight, you won’t lose quips Law, but if you fight you have to win. Like any good martial movie, Gallants is more about the journey than the destination. Rather than focussing solely on Cheung who experiences several conflicts of the heart when he realises that his adversary is the childhood friend he used to bully and that he was technically on the wrong side to begin with, Kwok and Cheng broaden the canvas to allow Tiger, Dragon, and Law to take centre stage. Still skilled martial artists, the guys give it their all in the knowledge that they’ll have to work far harder now that they aren’t as agile as they once were. Still, they have the true spirit of kung fu and resolve to keep getting back up each time they’re knocked down.

This oddly defeatist attitude which presupposes humiliation but insists on perseverance gives the film much of its warmhearted, ironic tone as the hapless martial arts heroes repeatedly fail yet refuse to back down. The other source of comedy lies in the hilarious performance of the tiny Teddy Robin as the supposedly all powerful Law. Law, as it turns out, is a wisecracking lecher who sets about flirting with just about every young girl he lays eyes on before decamping to a hostess bar and asking for the ladies from 30 years ago. Former starlet Susan Shaw makes an amusing cameo as the long suffering, lovelorn doctor apparently in love with Law since their youth who has continued to care for him throughout his illness but is entirely forgotten when Law wakes up in full on sleaze mode.

Bizarre gags including one about a missing preserved duck, jostle with impressive action sequences performed by two veterans proving they’ve still got what it takes all these years later. The aesthetic is pure ‘70s Shaw Brothers complete with speedy zooms and whip pans accompanied by an overly dramatic score, lovingly echoing the classic kung fu era rather than trying to attack it through parody. As funny as it all is, and it is, Gallants is also surprisingly warmhearted as it finds space to value the skills of its elderly protagonists as well as the enduring bonds of friendship which connect them.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Made in Hong Kong (香港製造, Fruit Chan, 1997)

made in HK vertical posterThe Hong Kong of 1997 becomes teenage wasteland for the trio at the centre of Fruit Chan’s urgent yet melancholy debut, Made in Hong Kong (香港製造). Made on a shoestring budget using cast off film and starring then unknowns, Chan’s New Wave inflected meditation on dead end youth is imbued with the sense of endings – illness, suicide, murder, and despair dominate the lives of these young people who ought to be beginning to live but find their paths constantly blocked. The world is changing, but far from possibility the future holds only confusion and anxiety for those left hanging in constant uncertainty.

Autumn Moon (Sam Lee), our narrator, is a boy fighting to become a man but too afraid to leave his adolescence behind even if he knew how. Living alone with his mother (Doris Chow Yan-Wah) after his father abandoned the family, Moon is a high school drop out with no real job who spends his time playing basketball with the neighbourhood kids and running petty errands for small scale Triad Big Brother Wing (Sang Chan). Already indulging in a hero complex, Moon is friends with and the de facto protector of a young man with learning difficulties, Sylvester (Wenders Li), who has been disowned by his birth family and is constantly picked on, beaten up, and molested by the local high schoolers. Taking Sylvester with him on a job one day, Moon runs into Mrs. Lam (Carol Lam Kit-Fong) whose debt he’s supposed to collect but when Sylvester has one of his frequent nosebleeds on seeing Mrs Lam’s beautiful daughter, Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi), Mrs. Lam manages to send them packing. Nevertheless, Sylvester and Moon end up becoming friends with Ping and enjoying the last days of Hong Kong together, engaged in a maudlin exploration of teenage mortality pangs.

As Moon puts it in his voice over, everything starts to go wrong when Sylvester picks up a pair of blood stained letters in the street. They belonged to a high school girl, Susan (Amy Tam Ka-Chuen), who we later find out killed herself from the pain of first love. The spectre of Susan haunts the trio of teens left behind who remain morbidly fascinated with her fate yet also afraid and anxious. Together they pledge to investigate her death and return the letters to their rightful owners as, one assumes, Susan would have wanted. Even so, when they finally track down the recipient of the first letter, the man Susan gave her life for, he barely looks at it and tears her carefully crafted words of heartbreak into a thousand pieces, scattering them to the wind unread.

In investigating Susan’s tragic love affair, Moon and Ping begin to fall in love but Ping too already has the grim spectre of death around her. Seriously ill, Ping is at constant risk if she can’t get a kidney transplant but the list is long and she’s running out of time. Moon wants to be the hero Ping thinks he is, but he’s powerless in the face of such a faceless threat. He makes two decisions – one, to get the money to pay her debt, and two to go on the organ donor’s register so that if anything happens to him, Ping might get his kidney, struggling to do something even if it won’t really help.

Powerlessness is the force defines Moon’s life as he adopts a kind of breezy passivity to mask the fact that he has no real agency. He says he doesn’t want to join the Triads full-time because he values his independence, prefers making his own decisions, and hates taking orders but he rarely makes decisions of his own and when he does they tend not to be good ones. Moon drifts into a life of petty gangsterism partly out of a lack of other options, and partly out of laziness. Abandoned by his father and then later by his mother too, Moon’s only real source of guidance is the minor Triad boss Big Brother Wing who, unlike his mother, at least pretends to trust and respect him. Getting hold of a gun, Moon dances around like some movie vigilante drunk on power and possibility but once again fails in the hero stakes when a friend comes to him in desperate need for help but he’s so busy playing the cool dude alone in his apartment that he doesn’t even hear him over the music.

When it comes to pulling a trigger, Moon can’t do it, no matter how many times he’s visualised the moment and seen himself making the precision kill like an ice cold hitman in a stylish thriller. Moon’s illusion of his heroic righteousness crumbles. He couldn’t save his friends, has been rejected by his family, and has lost all hope for a meaningful future. As if to underline the hopelessness and fatalism of his times, Fruit Chan ends on a radio broadcast which instructs the lister to say the same thing again, only this time in Mandarin – the language of the future. Moon, Sylvester, and Ping are all cast adrift in this dying world, abandoned by parental figures and left to face their uncertain futures all alone. As a portrait of youthful alienation and despair, Made in Hong is a timeless parable in which an indifferent society eats its young, but it’s also the story of a Hong Kong Holden Caulfield standing in for his nation as they both find themselves approaching an unbreachable threshold with no bridge in sight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Trailer for the 4K restoration which premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017 (English subtitles)

Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.

After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.

The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.

The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.

Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.

Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say. 


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷, Alex Law, 2010)

echoes of the Rainbow posterThe tragedy of childhood is that you can’t quite see it on the ground. Looking back the truth is plainer but it’s also painful, containing all the warmth of those times but also the regrets and irreconcilable longings. Alex Law’s small scale personal tale of inevitable tragedies mixed with intense nostalgia, Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷, Shui Yuet Sun Tau), is deeply sincere and more than earns its turn for the sentimental in its never wavering feeling of authenticity as it paints a picture of a rapidly disappearing Hong Kong and a childhood lived in a big brother’s shadow.

Eight year old “Big Ears” (Buzz Chung) lives with his cobbler father (Simon Yam) at the end of a long, run down street of shop keepers. Amusingly enough, Big Ears’ uncle (Paul Chun) lives at the other end of the street where he cuts hair so the family kind of has the full run of the place, head to toe. While Big Ears whiles his time away daydreaming,  putting a fish bowl on his head and pretending to be an astronaut or indulging in his favourite hobby – kleptomania, his big brother Desmond (Aarif Lee) is busy doing everything right. A tall, strong teenager with more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee, Desmond is a track and field star and academically gifted student at the prestigious Diocesan Boys’ School. Big Ears loves everything about his big brother, including his sort of girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi).

Law sketches the everyday lives of this ordinary family with the sort of details which randomly recall themselves years later – the tear on his father’s T-shirt from where it hits the end of his chisel, the taste of Autumn Moon Cake, the random conversations with passersby. The small community on this rundown street more is like an extended family in and of itself as the families take their meals on tables outside, each overhearing each other’s conversations and interfering in various family dramas. Big Ears quips that his mum (Sandra Ng) is known as “Mrs. Outlaw” because she’ll talk her way into or out of anything and has a talent for talking people around to her way of thinking, but the warmth and love between his parents is never shaken. Even in the midst of an encroaching tragedy, Mr. Law takes the time to design a pretty pair of ultra comfortable shoes for his harried wife who often complains about her corns.

Seen through little Big Ears’ eyes, the film avoids the bigger picture or any political concerns save for the presence of the corrupt colonial forces as represented by Sergeant Brian who speaks fluent Cantonese but stresses that English is essential for “getting on” in Hong Kong. Sergeant Brian is also going to get one whole box of the moon cakes Big Ears wanted all for himself and his mum has been paying for in instalments for the last few months, but the reason for his visit is a rise in the protection money the local police takes from shop keepers. If the Laws can’t pay it (and they can’t, really) they’ll be evicted. Not that Big Ears would know, but business is bad and the family is spending most of its income on Desmond’s expensive school fees so it’s doubly galling to them when his grades and athletic success begin to decline.

Big Ears is a naughty little boy, but often gets away with it because he’s just so darn cute. His pilfering habit goes largely undetected even though he steals quite ostentatious items like a glowing goblet souvenir from a movie starring his favourite actress whose picture he also sells with a fake signatures attached, a British flag from a nearby base, and even a pottery statue of the Monkey King from an actual temple. Desmond has this theory about about double rainbows that are an inversion of each other – something that could easily work for himself and his brother with Desmond’s essential goodness contrasting nicely with Big Ears’ roguish adventures whilst also speaking for the enduring bond between the brothers.

Even before the literal typhoon rips through Big Ears’ idyllic childhood home, there are signs of trouble on the horizon – firstly in Desmond’s melancholy love story with fellow tropical fish enthusiast Flora who turns out to come from an entirely different world filled with all the ease and possibility so absent from the Law’s, and then in Desmond’s gradual slowing down. The respective catch phrases of Big Ears’ parents signify the twin pillars of the age with his father’s insistence that “nothing is more important than the roof” as he works steadily to keep one over his boys, and his mother’s instances that life is “half difficult, half wonderful” but “you have to keep believing”. Earning a right to melodrama through fierce authenticity, Echoes of the Rainbow does not negate its tearjerking premise but rings it for all of its joy and sorrow, revelling in nostalgia but also in a kind of hopefulness born of having weathered a storm and survived to witness the birth of new rainbows lighting up the sky.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mad World (一念无名, Wong Chun, 2016)

Mad World_posterThroughout the aptly titled Mad World (一念無明), the central character frequently asks if he is really the one who is “abnormal” or if everyone else is merely operating under some misguided notion of “normality”, either deluding themselves that they meet it or actively masking the fact that they don’t. The first feature from Wong Chun, Mad World is not only the story of a man attempting to live with mental illness in a society which is unwilling to confront it, but also a discourse on the various ills of modern life from the ageing population and breakdown of the “traditional” family to the high pressure nature of “successful” living. Carefully nuanced yet pointed, Wong Chun’s vision is at once bleak and hopeful, finding victory in the courage to move on in self acceptance rather than in a less ambiguous discovery of a more positive future.

Tung (Shawn Yue) has spent the last year institutionalised after being arrested in connection with the death of his mother (Elaine Jin). The doctors and courts have both absolved him of any blame, but Tung has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is being released into the care of his estranged father, Wong (Eric Tsang), rather than simply released. When Wong picks Tung up at the hospital, the disconnect and anxiety between them is palpable, as is Wong’s embarrassment when he takes Tung back to the tiny room he inhabits in a low rent lodging house sharing a kitchen and a bathroom. Father and son will be sleeping on bunk beds with any idea of privacy or personal space firmly rejected.

Wong, a man in his 60s who’d all but abandoned his family for a career as a long-distance truck driver crossing the border into China, is ill-equipped to cope with caring for his son on several different levels. Perhaps a man of his times, he’s as ignorant and afraid of mental illness as anyone else, quickly getting fed up with Tung’s frequent crying fits and even stooping so low as to simply ask him why he can’t just be normal like everyone else. However, after getting more used to Tung’s new way of life, Wong does his best to get to grips with it, buying a number of books about depression and joining a support group for people who are caring for those with mental health needs.

Tung continues to struggle, finding it difficult to reintegrate into to society when society actively excludes those who don’t quite fit in. Attending a friend’s wedding shortly after having been discharged, Tung spots a few unpleasant social media posts referring to him under the nickname “Mr. Psychosis” while guests in the room mutter about the “nutjob” who must have just escaped the “loony bin”. Tung doesn’t do himself any favours when he grabs the mic and interrupts the groom’s speech to take the audience to task for their indifference, but the hostility he faces is entirely unwarranted. Later, experiencing another setback, Tung finds himself the subject of a viral video when he stops into a convenience store and guzzles Snickers bars in an attempt to improve his mood. It’s not long before someone has correctly identified him as the guy who was accused of killing his mother and put in a mental hospital, literally sending him right back to square one in terms of his recovery. To make matters worse, Tung can’t get any of his old contacts to look at his CV because they all have him branded as a dangerous madman and interviewing for new jobs never gets very far after they ask why there’s a one year gap in his employment history. 

Employment does seem to be a particular source of anxiety with frequent mentions of mass layoffs and even managerial suicides in the high pressure financial industries. Even before the events which led to his hospitalisation, Tung was undoubtedly under a lot of stress – planning a life with his fiancée, Jenny (Charmaine Fong), which adds the financial pressures of mortgages and saving to start a family. The sole carer for his elderly mother, Tung is also on the front line for her cruel, sometimes violent mood swings which, according to Wong, are a lifelong phenomenon rather than a symptom of the dementia she is also afflicted with. Tung lashes at out Jenny when she suggests putting his mother in a home where she can be better cared for, exhibiting a streak of unpredictable, frustrated violence of his own which also deeply worries him.

Tung may have inherited this impulsive volatility from his mother, in one sense or another, but his longstanding feelings of low self worth are as much to do with his parents’ seeming disregard for him as they are to do with anything else. His mother, unhappy in her marriage, blames her eldest son for trapping her in dead end existence while continuing to worship the younger one, Chun, who went to an Ivy League US university and has since left them all far behind. Constant, unfavourable comparisons to the golden boy only raise Tung’s levels of stress and resentment at being obliged to care for the woman who constantly rejects and belittles him after the “good” son and the “bad” husband both abandoned her. Wong “left” his wife because he couldn’t cope with her difficult personality and complicated emotional landscape, but now faces a similar dilemma with the son he had also left behind.

Hong Kong is, indeed, a maddening world as Tung and Wong find themselves crammed into a claustrophobic share house filled with similarly stressed and anxious people predisposed to see danger where there is none. Tung’s condition finds him semi-infantilised as the wiser than his years little boy from next-door becomes his only friend until his mother finds out about Tung’s condition and orders her son not to see him. Wong Chun’s central premise seems to be that the world will drive you crazy, but if there were more kindness and less hostility perhaps we could all stave off the madness for a little longer. Anchored by strong performances from Yue and Tsang, each playing somewhat against type, Mad World is a remarkably controlled debut feature which subtly underlines its core humanitarian message whilst taking care never to sugarcoat its less pleasant dimensions.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)