Weeds on Fire (點五步, Steve Chan Chi-Fat, 2016)

“Even though disappointed, do not lose hope” reads a piece of graffiti in the closing moments of Steve Chan Chi-fat’s nostalgic coming-of-age drama Weeds on Fire (點五步). Though touted as a baseball movie, as incongruous as that may sound given that the sport is a niche interest in contemporary Hong Kong, Chan’s strangely hopeful if quietly melancholy tale of ‘80s Sha Tin is bookended by scenes of the present day city in the midst of the Umbrella Movement protests the story the hero wants to offer seemingly intended for an audience of dejected youngsters as confused and disappointed as he once was in order to encourage them that what’s important isn’t winning or losing but staying the course and gaining the confidence to take the first step. 

Now in his mid-40s, Lung (Lam Yiu-sing) casts his mind back to the Hong Kong of 1984 when he lived on a rundown council estate in Sha Tin and attended a high school with a less than stellar academic record. A shy and nerdy boy, he was often bullied but always had childhood friend Wai (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), physically imposing and with a confident swagger, at his back. When the city comes up with additional funding for schools to use in the promotion of sport their enterprising headmaster Lu Kwong-fai (Liu Kai-chi) hatches on the idea of starting the region’s very first local high school baseball team, recruiting both Wai and Lung in the hope of teaching them teamwork and discipline. Nevertheless, being teammates begins to place a strain on their friendship and it becomes clear that the boys are destined for different paths. Wai quits the team in a huff and leaves school, mooching round in pool bars and hanging out with triads while Lung steps up to the plate but is troubled by the loss of his friendship and the fracturing relationship between his unhappily married parents. 

Chan somewhat unsubtly ties Lung’s personal development to that of Hong Kong as he finds himself coming of age in era of anxiety. The world is literally changing around him, 1984 being as says the year that the redevelopment of Sha Tin began in earnest while it also marked the signing of the Sino-British Declaration paving the way for the transfer of power in the 1997 Handover. A young man, Lung wants to “change” himself in that he longs for the confidence to ask out a young woman he’s developed a crush on but is too shy and disappointed in himself for doing nothing when witnessing her being harassed by a drunken creep in the lift of the apartment block where they both live. Yet in other ways change frightens him and really he wants everything to stay the same believing that saying nothing will maintain the status quo only to realise that there are situations over which he has no real control. 

His headmaster and coach of the baseball team Lu admits that he set Wai and Lung against each other in order to encourage him to come out from his friend’s shadow embracing his own identity and discovering a sense of self-confidence. Yet Lung continues to struggle, a little lost unable to find clear direction in his life while everything changes around him occasionally consumed by a sense of despair as perhaps are the young protestors in believing their movement has failed. In baseball what he realises that it isn’t about winning or losing but having the confidence to step up to the plate, subtly telling the protestors to hang in there because there’s still time to turn this around. “I never said we had to win”, inspirational coach Lu reminds the boys, “but I did say never give up!”.

Loosely based on the real life story of the Shatin Martins though as the closing credit reel reveals the original team were primary school children rather than high schoolers, Chan shifts away from sporting drama towards the more familiar youth movie metaphor of two former friends heading in different directions, the good boy knuckling down while the “bad” becomes a victim of his own hotheaded arrogance even if managing to repair his fractured friendship with Lung before tragedy strikes. Filled with memories of Handover anxiety and a healthy dose of ‘80s nostalgia, the film’s incongruous jauntiness is perhaps at odds with the gravity of the tale though that is perhaps itself part of the message the older Lung has for the young. “This is the city where I grew up. It’s become increasingly unfamiliar” he laments striding through streets filled with tents occupied by student protestors, sympathising with their cause while offering them a note of melancholy hope in his own, sometimes painful, tale of finding his feet in a changing Hong Kong. 


Weeds on Fire streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城, Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, 2020)

“We can’t afford to be afraid” insists a protestor trapped inside the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University during the 2019 protests sparked by opposition to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. Credited only to the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective, its directors for obvious reasons choosing to remain anonymous, Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城) is a visceral exploration of life behind the barricades as the trapped youngsters, some of whom are under the age of 18, grow increasingly frustrated and afraid, desperate for escape but fearful of police violence. 

The police, it has to be said, do not come out of this well. While the protestors blast local hip hop highly critical of law enforcement, the officers negotiating via loud speaker repeatedly troll them with ironic pop songs with titles such as “Surrounded” or “Ambush From Ten Sides” while otherwise taunting them with ridiculous insults and talking about going out to kill cockroaches. Such deliberate provocation at least giving the impression that they are merely looking for an excuse to storm the university does not endear them to the protestors trapped inside most of whom already want to leave but not if it means walking out into the arms of the police. With the mounting hysteria, it isn’t even the immediacy of the threat that causes the most anxiety but the possibilities of its aftermath, many fearing not just police brutality but sexual violence and that their mistreatment will not end with their arrest. This is one reason that many struggle to trust a cohort of high school principals who are permitted to enter the university in order to lead out some of the school-aged protestors, promising to protect them from the police batons in order to deliver them to their homes safely and directly. In return the protestors are asked to provide their IDs, leading many to fear they will simply be arrested the following morning. 

Nevertheless, as the situation inside begins to decline it becomes clear to many that they must leave by whatever means possible, some engaging in potentially dangerous escape attempts such as abseiling from a bridge to be met by friends on motorbikes, or exiting through the sewers. Others debate the wisdom of leaving at all, correctly as it turns out surmising that the police will eventually be forced to end the siege because allowing it to continue is simply far too expensive. Even so, these are extremely young people under intense strain, mentally and physically exhausted while also fearing for their lives. Remarking that many have made their wills, one young man insists it’s not death he fears, he’s prepared for that, but that he may die in here and no one would know.  

The necessity of hiding their faces, the documentarians are scrupulous in blurring even the faintest trace of identifiable features, adds to the sense of the collective which becomes in the eyes of some at least their best weapon of defence. Yet through repeated attempts to break through the blockade and the gradual shedding of those who cannot endure any longer deciding to accept the threat of arrest and surrender, the group necessarily weakened causing many to fear their reduced numbers leave them increasingly vulnerable. Some protestors loudly harangue their friends for leaving, while others offer only comfort as their fellow protestors tearfully apologise but can clearly remain no longer. A few pledge to wait it out while debating the ethical dimensions of leaving if it means abandoning those who are already too injured to make their own way out. 

In the midst of the action, the documentarians hover over blood-stained helmets and the aftermath of violence but are also relatively free to record police brutality seemingly ignored by officers otherwise pinning protestors to the floor and in some cases recklessly firing rubber bullets in close proximity even at one point appearing to fire directly at the back of a fleeing protestor’s head. Interrupting these scenes with shots of empty corridors – discarded clothing, a lone shoe inches away from the fire, all those battered umbrellas – the filmmakers evoke an almost apocalyptic atmosphere of total desolation offering little hope for the future in a society dominated by fear and authoritarianism. 


Inside the Red Brick Wall screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (dialogue free)

The Dishwasher Squad (洗碗天團, Shum Sek-yin, 2021)

“Help those in need, then what about me?” asks the cynical hero of screenwriter Shum Sek-yin’s directorial debut, The Dishwasher Squad (洗碗天團). Another in the recent series of films exploring attitudes to disability in contemporary Hong Kong, Shum’s breezy comedy sees two self-centred businessmen with some extremely outdated and often quite offensive views decide that the only way to recover from being scammed into buying a moribund business is by exploiting the vulnerable only to eventually reawaken to their humanity if only perhaps to a degree. 

After Kyun’s (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) business fails, his best friend Lun (Ekin Cheng) comes up with a plan to buy out the industrial dishwashing plant owned by the friend of a friend who is apparently keen to sell because he wants to emigrate to Canada with his son who has learning difficulties. Strangely, on that very day, Kyun seems to find himself repeatedly running into disabled people for whom he seems to have little to no respect often using offensive language and even stealing an extra cookie from a young man with Down’s Syndrome collecting money for charity. Kyun seems fairly smug about each of these problematic encounters as if congratulating himself for getting one over on those he sees as lesser than himself. Unfortunately for him, however, while he thought he was conning the factory owner by telling him they planned to use the place to help the needy, the factory owner was actually conning him seeing as the business isn’t viable and is in fact riddled with debts. Not only that, all the staff were casual employees leaving Kyun and Lun with a huge problem seeing as they have legally binding contracts to fulfil and no staff to fulfil them. 

That’s one reason he eventually hatches on a cynical plan to take advantage of a government scheme to become a “Social Enterprise” in order to gain a subsidy by employing a majority of marginalised employees who might otherwise find it difficult to secure regular employment. Working with a local social worker (Hedwig Tam), he agrees to employ a young woman with autism and two men with learning difficulties along with another woman trying to rebuild her life after leaving prison. Aside from access to the subsidy, the main draw for Kyun is that he assumes he won’t have to pay them very much or even at all, getting the two men to work for free during their “probationary” period and thereafter attempting to fire one of them before it comes to an end. To bolster the work force, Kyun also recruits a series of undocumented South Asian migrants for much the same reasons assuming they will have little desire to make a fuss over their pay or conditions. 

Nevertheless, through close contact with each of his staff members Kyun finally begins to develop a sense of humanity though it’s unfortunate that his ability to recognise his employees as fellow humans only comes with a realisation that they are “useful” to him after all as they each and for varying reasons become attached to their new jobs and the atmosphere at the factory. It has to be said, however, that Shum’s otherwise positive message of people over profit is undercut by the series of fat jokes aimed at a female worker who at one point is seen eating from an automatic pet feeder, while a scene featuring an improvised stomach pump after an employee accidentally ingests detergent is also perhaps in poor taste even if hinting at the depths Kyun is prepared to sink to in order to protect his business interests.

Despite having bonded with his employees in a genuine sense of camaraderie, Kyun is still intent on exploiting his workforce and continues to see himself as superior if having developed a little more of a moral compass. Even so, he has perhaps developed the desire to run an honest business built on trust and compassion rather than greed and deception even if he hasn’t quite got there yet while reaffirming his friendship with Lun as they find themselves on a more even footing after a brief falling out. Mixing mild social issue themes regarding the difficulties faced by those marginalised by the contemporary society with lighthearted humour and a lot of heart, The Dishwasher Squad eventually argues for doing right by each other even if not everyone feels the same way. 


The Dishwasher Squad has its World Premiere on Oct. 17 at ChiTown Drive-in as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟, Mak Ho-Pong, 2020)

“I’m treating this as a vacation” says affable triad Chan (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) of his three month prison term, after all it’s rent free and three meals a day who could say no to that in the difficult economic environment of pre-handover Hong Kong? Nevertheless, it’s hardly a vacation if you can’t cut it short and Chan, along with two buddies, will eventually find reasons to want to leave. Mak Ho-pong’s genial prison break comedy Breakout Brothers (逃獄兄弟) takes occasional subversive potshots against an increasingly corrupt social order but eventually discovers that you can’t escape social responsibility while the real reward is indeed the friends you make along the way. 

That is at least the conclusion that newbie prisoner Mak (Adam Pak Tin-Nam) comes to after being pulled into an escape plan formulated by petty gangster Chan who decides to make a break for it after learning that his dear mother has been taken ill and needs a kidney transplant which only he can give her. Thinking of his prison time as a vacation from the pressures of everyday life, Chan has been a low maintenance prisoner and therefore assumed the warden would agree to a temporary release to let him help his mum, but Warden Tang (Kenny Wong Tak-Ban) who has already served a “life sentence” of 30 years in post has recently been promised a promotion and doesn’t want anything to mess it up like a prisoner turning fugitive while on hospital leave. Spotting a workman disappearing from a storeroom and emerging Mario-style from a manhole on the other side of the fence Chan gets an idea and enlists Mak, an architect inside after being framed for taking bribes, to help him figure out the logistics, and Big Roller (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man), leader of the prison’s second biggest gang, for access and protection. 

The guys’ predicaments are perhaps embodiments of the age, Chan wanting out for reasons of filial piety while for Big Roller it’s in a sense the reverse in learning the daughter he was told had died is in fact alive and about to be married. Mak meanwhile wants out because he’s a sitting duck inside, the shady construction CEO who framed him for singing off on lax safety procedures which led to a fire in a prominent building having enlisted the services of rival gangster Scar (Justin Cheung Kin-Seng) to intimidate him into dropping his appeal. Hints of institutional corruption extend to the colonial prison system with guards quite clearly intimidated by prisoners and often turning a blind eye to cellblock violence while it’s also implied that Warden Tang has in a sense facilitated the rise of Scar at the expense of Big Roller as a means of maintaining order. He, like the colonial authorities, will soon be on his way but anticipating his own freedom is keen there be no trouble which is why he refuses Chan’s compassionate leave and extends little sympathy to new boy Mak. 

In any case, the real draw is the bumbling crime caper of the guys planning a heist-style escape which is, in the history of prison escapes, not an especially elaborate one. The prison is not exactly max security, and as they plan to escape during the celebrations for the Mid-August festival none of them are anticipating much difficulty in making it to the outside though as expected not quite everything goes to plan. Mak, meanwhile, eventually takes Big Roller’s advice and decides to stay inside to clear his name properly while the gang ensure his safety rather than try to live as a guilty fugitive and possibly be caught only to end up with more time. The other two have more pressing temporary goals and have not perhaps considered what to do after they’ve completed them, believing only that their lives are untenable if they cannot fulfil their duties as father and son respectively. 

Perhaps for this reason, the Mainland-friendly conclusion has each of the men recommitting themselves to paying their debts to society, Chan even insisting that he’s going to use his time wisely to improve his education in order to be a better husband and son while Big Roller promises to become a carpenter for real. Mak gets a partial vindication in that the shady CEO is finally forced to face justice while also realising that his slightly elitist, individualist stance has been mistaken thanks to the warm and genuine relationships he’s discovered inside. More comedy crime caper than tense prison break thriller, Breakout Brothers remains true to its name in prioritising the unconventional friendship that develops between the trio as they bond in a shared sense of existential rather than literal imprisonment. 


Breakout Brothers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子 , Jimmy Wan Chi-Man, 2021)

“No one treats you like an ordinary person, so become an extraordinary one” the heroic mother at the centre of Wan Chi-Man’s Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子) tells her young son as he struggles to find a place for himself as a disabled person in an unaccommodating society. Inspired by the real life story of multi-medal winning Paralympian So Wa Wai (Leung Chung-hang), Wan’s inspirational tale is as much about maternal determination as it is about overcoming preconceived limits but also makes a series of subtle points about how the contemporary society treats disability. 

Wan opens in Guangzhou in 1981 as Wai’s mother Mrs. So (Sandra Ng) frantically rushes him to hospital only to be told that he has jaundice which has resulted in cerebral palsy meaning that he will likely never be able to walk or feed himself. The doctor double checks if the family would like to proceed with treatment given this information to which they emphatically reply they would. A few years later, the family has migrated to Hong Kong and Mrs. So is forced to take Wai with her to her job in a laundry, eventually finding herself at her wits end after his hearing aid goes missing placing her son on the shoot and shouting at him to walk only to shut the belt down just before he reaches the edge. At this point, Wai manages to pull himself onto his feet, proving the doctors wrong and teaching himself to walk unassisted. Witnessing an older Wai run away from neighbourhood bullies gives Mrs. So an idea and she soon tries to enrol him in a club for athletes with physical disabilities only to be turned away because of his age but his decision to join in anyway gets him noticed by former Paralympian relay runner Coach Fong (Louis Cheung Kai-chung) who decides to take him on and train him up. 

In contrast to other sporting biopics, Wai’s path to Olympic success is more or less drama free even as he strives to improve his athletic abilities and overcome the mild resentment among some of his teammates in needing to change their style and position in order to accommodate him. Wan does however hint at the difficulties of living as a disabled person in late 20th century Hong Kong, Fong explaining to Mrs So that the Paralympics aren’t aired on Hong Kong TV and disabled athletes earn only 10% of that earned by the able-bodied. Wai does receive a small subsidy, but the Sos are otherwise forced to scrimp and save so that Wai can continue running, a situation that becomes impossible after his father is injured in an accident and left unable to work. 

It’s also clear that Mrs. So’s all encompassing love for her son causes occasional tension in the family in leaving her younger, able-bodied son understandably feeling neglected while everyone fixates on Wai’s sporting success. Wai’s brother is perfectly aware that he was born in part as a safety net for Wai so that someone would be around to look after him once the Sos have passed away and cannot at times help resenting him. Yet the family unit remains generally united until the older Wai’s prideful resentment of what he sees as his mother’s micro-managing begins to undermine their relationship. “I just want to run” Wai explains, fed up with the series of commercial opportunities his mother has agreed to on his behalf in an attempt to keep him financially secure in the future. When a director for an advert tells him he’s speaking “too well” and asks him to sound more disabled Wai has had enough, leading to a confrontation that ends both in romantic heartbreak and a falling out between mother and son. 

“Catching up is the story of my life” Wai reminds Fong, emphasising the film’s inspirational message that sometimes people have further to go but get there in the end while also signalling the various ways lack of accommodation for his disabilities has continued to hold him back outside of his sporting success. A heartwarming tale of an incredible mother-son bond, Zero to Hero insists that the mutual determination to succeed turned them both into heroes allowing Wai to achieve his full potential as a Paralympian bringing gold and glory back home in defiance of those who told him he’d never be anything. 


Zero to Hero screens Aug. 21 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Raging Fire (怒火, Benny Chan, 2021)

“If you had chased Coke that day, would our destinies have been reversed?” a cop turned villain asks of his righteous colleague, but his friend has no answer for him. The final film from director Benny Chan who sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with cancer while filming, Raging Fire (怒火) pits a disgruntled police officer wronged by the system against an incorruptible detective but suggests that the real villain is an increasingly corrupt society in which the rich and powerful have a direct line to justice. 

As the film opens, noble officer Cheung (Donnie Yen) is racing towards some kind of altercation in a shipyard but later wakes up next to his much younger and very pregnant wife (Qin Lan). After a years long operation, his team is about to take out a petty criminal involved with a previous investigation which resulted in fellow officers getting sent to prison for excessive use of force. After refusing to to help a wealthy businessman make his son’s drunken car accident go away, Cheung is taken off the case while the raid turns out to have been a trap leaving eight of his friends dead and many more injured. Through his investigations, Cheung begins to realise that his former colleague Ngo (Nicholas Tse), recently released from prison, may be responsible for the deaths of his friends in pursuing a vigilante revenge against the police force he feels betrayed him. 

“This society doesn’t reward good men” Ngo later insists, though his total and relatively sudden transformation from earnest cop to bloodthirsty psychopathic killer seems something of a stretch. Cheung aside, the Hong Kong police force is depicted as infinitely corrupt and working at the behest of the rich and powerful to further agendas not always in the interests of justice. The case which caused so much trouble related to the kidnapping of a prominent financier and the secretary he was canoodling with at the time, the financier’s wife having obeyed the kidnappers’ instructions not to call the police by ringing a government contact instead which is why the operation is covert. Ngo and his team were told to do whatever it took to extract information from a suspect who later wound up dead but were hung out to dry by the superior officer who ordered it. Not unreasonably they see themselves as victims of a corrupt system but care little who might get in the way of their vicious bid for revenge. 

For his part, Chueng is also a thorn in the side of his colleagues because of his refusal to play along with the base level corruption all around him. Dragged to the meeting with the businessman by nervous colleague Beau (Patrick Tam), Cheung sips tea rather than the wine everyone else is drinking and eventually storms out making a point of paying for his exorbitantly priced beverage while refusing to be complicit with systemic corruption. So upright is he that he asks a passing driver if he has insurance before borrowing his car to chase down Ngo and when he himself is accused of breaking protocol the entire squad shows up to petition the disciplinary panel on his behalf. Ngo asks him if the situation would have been reversed had it been Cheung who had questioned the suspect that night, but of course it wouldn’t because Cheung would never have beaten a suspect to death in the first place. 

Chan places this debate front and centre by setting the final showdown in a church currently undergoing renovation, Ngo seemingly judged for his moral transgressions while Cheung meditates on the man he used to be in a bromance montage that laments the tragedy of Ngo’s fall from grace. The battle of wits between the two men, Ngo of course uniquely positioned to game the system he rails against, ends only in futility while the system which created him remains unchanged. Chan shoots with characteristic visual flare sending his compromised cops through a golden hellscape of the contemporary city veering between beautifully choreographed, high octane action sequences including a lengthy car chase through a highly populated area, and procedural thrills tinged with ambivalent social commentary in which justice itself has become commodified while police officers exceed their authority and bow to the rich and powerful. A throwback to classic Hong Kong action, Chan’s final film is a fitting finale for the career of a director taken far too soon. 


Raging Fire screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and will be released in US cinemas on Aug, 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Time (殺出個黃昏, Ricky Ko, 2021)

Youth is wasted on the young in Ricky Ko’s wistfully nostalgic ode to a bygone Hong Kong, Time (殺出個黃昏). Highlighting a series of very real social problems from the government’s failure to properly care for its old, to incurable loneliness, and the changing family dynamics of the modern society, Ko’s sometimes melancholy drama begins as a story about death but then finally becomes one about life granting its defeated heroes a second chance at a forgotten love in the formation of a new family. 

Ko opens, however, with a kitsch retro sequence filmed in the manner of ‘70s action movies in which a trio of assassins cooly eliminate their targets. Flashing forward to the present day, hitman Chau (Patrick Tse Yin) is unceremoniously let go from his job as a noodle chef. Unable to keep up with the breakneck pace of contemporary Hong Kong, he’s being replaced by a machine. A message on a radio show brings him back into contact with his old gang, fixer Fung (Petrina Fung Bo-Bo) now a nightclub singer and owner of at the Golden Phoenix cabaret bar catering for elderly romantics, and getaway driver Chung (Lam Suet) who has formed an unwise emotional attachment to a sex worker he dreams of marrying. Fung has found them a new job, but Chau immediately senses something different on his arrival. His target is a bedridden old lady who’s called the hit on herself because she can’t afford the bills for her medical treatment and has no real quality of life. 

Chau is so shocked he can’t go through with it, later seeing in a news report that the woman’s husband has been arrested in connection with her death. Her plight seems to have provoked a minor debate concerning lack of appropriate care for Hong Kong’s elderly. “Death is better than debt” is the way the woman’s husband characterised her choice, essentially affirming that there was no way for her to go on living in a society which has abandoned its elderly and infirm. Nevertheless, after that first case Chau takes on more requests for “euthanasia” from similarly afflicted people yet one of his most poignant is for a very wealthy man in good physical health who is simply lonely following the death of his wife. Though he had a large family, his children are far away with lives of their own and rarely visit. He chooses death in the hope of reuniting with his wife and escaping from the crushing loneliness of his existence. 

One particular assignment, however, brings Chau into contact with vulnerable teenager Tsz-Ying (Chung Suet-Ying) who has been abandoned by her parents following their divorce and is currently living alone. Despite himself, Chau ends up taking the girl in and acting as her “grandpa” while she insists on learning his knife technique and how to make noodles the old fashioned way. For his part, Chau finds himself at odds with the modern world, confused beyond belief about how to pay for a bus ticket and embarrassed when a younger woman does it for him by waving her phone at a box by the driver. He stands rather than sit in one of the priority seats reserved for elderly passengers unwilling to accept that he has become old. Yet living with Tsz-Ying he begins to emerge into the modern society, learning how to use a smartphone and regaining something of his youth even as he bests a few young whippersnappers who made the mistake of underestimating an old guy. 

While Chung, plagued by medical issues, quips that prison is “all inclusive” and you can get an appointment with your doctor any time you want, Fung has family issues of her own including a tense relationship with her snobbish daughter-in-law who’s determined to force her to sell her apartment and give up the club to get her grandson into an elite school. Despite their dark history as killers for hire, the trio are subject to the same problems faced by ordinary elderly people, witnessing lonely deaths and incurable pain coupled with a sense of futility which encourages them to think their lives are already over. Yet thanks to their involvement with Tsz-Ying they get a kind of second chance, building a new kind of family in intergenerational solidarity. Quirky and nostalgic, Ko’s aptly belated directorial debut feature may begin as a story about death and the inexorable march of time but finally makes the case for sidestepping the alienation of the modern society for a more wholesome sense of community and the eternal ability to start again no matter how old you are.


Time streams in the US Aug. 10 to 15 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠, Sunny Lau, 2021)

“People have always been scarier than ghosts” according to the hero of Sunny Lau’s retro horror comedy, Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠). He is not in a sense wrong, the gang of down on their luck filmmakers unexpectedly uncovering a minor historical injustice while operating an “authentic” haunted house, and while the ghosts may be scary they are merely attempting to connect and right an old wrong. Filled with cynical humour, Lau’s witty screenplay is often disparaging of the contemporary Hong Kong film industry and an increasingly cutthroat society but finds unexpected pathos in the romantic tragedy at its centre. 

As the film opens, fast talking producer Pierre (Matt Chow Hoi-Kwong) has been hauled in front of mob boss Choi (Eric Kot Man-fai) who wants to know what the holdup is on their mutual film project. Boss Choi meanwhile has another problem in that the hotpot restaurant he’s just bought isn’t doing so well owing to the place being haunted. Ever enterprising Pierre comes up with a new idea: opening an “authentic” haunted house on the same site featuring real ghosts while shooting a movie in the same location. Getting the green light, Pierre enlists prosthetics guy Gary (Yatho Wong) to design the interiors for a horror show inspired by the real life studio fire of 30-years previously supposedly started by a clown in resentment after being turned down by the leading lady. 

Hoping to get more information, the guys talk to surviving actor Uncle Cheong (Chan Kwok-pong) who spins them a tale of his own heroism, claiming that he tried to intervene when the clown attacked his girlfriend and co-star but had to step out only to return after getting a pager message about the fire and attempt to save what lives he could. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cheong is all for their haunted house endeavour even making an appearance on opening night, but the gang can’t help but feel there must be more to this strange tale of arson and revenge. 

Mildmannered in the extreme, Gary finds himself conflicted in running Pierre’s unusual enterprise, wondering if it’s corrupting him or then again “Maybe to survive in Hong Kong, being mean is a basic necessity”. “Conning people diligently in Hong Kong is the path to success”, according to his friend even as they ironically prepare to open their “authentic” haunted house where encounters with “real” ghosts quickly find an audience who believe screaming in supernatural terror has therapeutic effects that can ease the depression and anxiety they feel as young people in contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pierre sells the haunted house idea partly on the strength that no one makes horror movies anymore because, famously, you can’t sell them on the Mainland and so co-productions aren’t interested. He describes Gary as the “tumour that’s killing the Hong Kong film industry” while constantly talking a big game, like a stereotypical producer willing to say everything and everything in order to get ahead, even hobnobbing with triads. “Hong Kong Cinema is all about discipline” he ironically claims despite being massively behind on all his projects, giving Gary a dressing down for being a few days late with his designs. 

“Some things don’t need to be completely understood” a zany medium claims, somewhat duplicitously, but it’s not until their own encounter with the ghost that the gang start to pick up on the dark legacy of the studio fire making use, possibly, of an unfair prejudice against clowns to sell the idea of a madman killer driven insane by lust and resentment towards a woman who had rejected him. What they discover is a sad tale of frustrated love, wounded male ego, and bitter regret that has perhaps manifested itself as a deeply held grudge as the guilty party holds on to their guilt and shame despite themselves. “It’s never too late to turn back” the villain is cautioned by a now elderly shaman, but in some ways it is, especially if you’ve already donned the clown suit of vicarious violence, “all debts must be paid”.  

Making the most of its whimsical premise, the increasingly surreal tale doesn’t skimp on the horror imagery with its scarred ghosts and scary clowns but also harks back to the horror comedies of old with its sutras and seals as the gang attempt to solve the mystery and right a historical injustice. Filled with amusing meta references to the contemporary Hong Kong film industry, ironic satire, and absurdist gags Lau’s charmingly off the wall comedy has only sympathy for its lovelorn ghosts of a bygone era and the hapless film crew attempting to navigate the vagaries of an often absurd industry.


Sugar Street Studio streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)