July Rhapsody (男人四十, Ann Hui, 2002)

“Not every ending fulfils your expectations” a weary mother advises her son sharing long buried family secrets which will at least set them free if not perhaps happily. Scripted by Ivy Ho, Ann Hui’s July Rhapsody (男人四十) is as the Chinese title “a man at 40” implies a film about mid-life crises and quiet desperation as a middle-aged school teacher begins to resent the loss of his youth while transgressively drawn to a free-spirited student. 

Lam (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) describes himself as “stiff”, a “boring” man who teaches Chinese literature to disinterested students while privately consumed by a sense of inferiority observing with envy the yachts that litter the horizon on a trip to the beach with his son. At a reunion dinner he gets up with irritation when one of his former classmates now a wealthy financier tries to pay the bill for everyone insisting on paying his own way while perhaps exposing the sense of belittlement he feels around his more successful friends. His wife Ching (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) questions his decision pointing out that even if he could afford to pay his bit perhaps his friend Yue (Eric Kot Man-Fai) couldn’t and would feel equally insulted should Lam simply agree to pay his share too. To add insult to injury, one of his friends also wants to hire him to tutor his young son in classical Chinese poetry which leaves him feeling somewhat humiliated but on the other hand not wanting to turn the money down. 

These feelings of dissatisfaction with the way his life has turned out only intensify as he reaches the age of 40 and begins to feel his options narrowing wondering if this is really all there is. He and Ching recall a melancholy poem they learnt at school in which a scholar on a boat laments “the limitations of life” only for the poem to be ironically cut short when the couple’s younger son, Stone, comes to fetch his mum because the soup is boiling dry. Even without knowledge of the final revelations told in a two part story divided between a mother and a father to a son, we can gather that Lam married extremely young and became a father soon after. He studied at night school and became a teacher as a steady job to provide for his family and perhaps to a degree resents them for limiting his choices. His classmates, aside from Yue, all went on to find more lucrative careers while he lives in a small two bed flat snapping at his wife that he’s unlikely to find the money to buy a bigger one. 

When he irritably tells her a tube of glue they bought is “all dried up” it sounds like an insult and a way of describing their moribund relationship. Beginning to bond with free-spirited high school girl Wu (Karena Lam Ka-Yan), Lam initiates intimacy with Ching but then turns away leaving her lonely and disappointed. She meanwhile explains to him that a figure from their past whom he seems to resent has become ill and is all alone. She would like to care for him but only with Lam’s consent which he gives but grudgingly. Talking to her son, Ching admits that she isn’t sure if she’s helping this man out of pity or because she simply wants to see him suffer given the effect he has had on her life. Similarly Lam later confesses to Wu that he may have befriended Yue because he was a poor student and unpopular. At his side, Lam was always going to look good bearing out his sense of insecurity in wanting to be seen as the best, idolising his Chinese literature teacher and desperate for his praise only to find himself ironically echoing his transgressions in allowing himself to be seduced by a student. 

Ironically enough, Lam tells his son that he became a teacher because he sat behind Ching in class and wanted to stand out front so that he could see her face. Wu represents for him that same innocent teenage romance, but also a sense of the path not taken in her free-spiritedness and confidence. Lam followed the conventional path, did everything right, and now he’s unhappy. Wu rejects education and goes straight into business, supported by a wealthy father, planning to go travelling in India to look for new stock for her shop. His sons too perhaps echo his conflicting desires, Ang the older studious and responsible, and the younger Stone (changing his name to the cooler “Rocky”) uninterested in his studies. The melancholy poem which frequently recurs hints at a parting while husband and wife each attempt to resolve something but are left only with uncertainty and perhaps tragically in opposing positions in considering the further course of their lives. 

This very literary drama is related in a series of stories, Lam’s told to his son first in person and then in a letter, followed by Ching’s and the constant stream of classical Chinese poetry that floods the screen guiding the couple towards the expanse of the Yangtze River. As Ching had said, not every ending fulfils your expectations because in the end life is not so neatly packaged. There may be no real accommodation with middle-aged disappointment but there may be new ways forward to be found in resolving the traumatic past.


July Rhapsody screens at Garden Cinema, London on 10th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍, Tsui Hark & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1991)

Comic book heroes often rise in resistance to a label others have placed on them, but Uncle Choy (Dean Shek Tin) may be the first to offer fierce opposition to societal ageism. Inspired by a series of comic books which ran from 1958 to the mid-1970s, Tsui Hark and Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍) is at great pains to make plain that you shouldn’t write people off because of a few numbers on an ID card as its admittedly geriatric hero proves that he’s the force for good the Resistance has been waiting for. 

That would be the Resistance towards the Japanese and the new puppet state of Manchuria in the confusing world of 1932. Tsui and Ching open with Pu Yi himself getting out of a limo in a sparkling white uniform adorned with meaningless medals glinting in the sun before he takes to the stage and bizarrely likens himself to Hitler while insisting that he’s here to unify China because his ancestors told him to in a dream. Meanwhile, the Resistance has already infiltrated his forces and installed dynamite in his microphone only for his right-hand man, Matsu (Tony Leung Ka-fai), to catch on right before it explodes. Pu Yi is saved, for now, while Matsu declares himself unfazed by the Resistance fighter’s dying words that he will be coming back to haunt him. 

In another part of the jungle, a team of mute locals is trying to bring a doctor to some soldiers hiding out in a remote shack. After narrowly escaping a plane attack by blowing a hole in a dam and drowning it with water, Uncle Choy arrives to discover that the men are victims of a new kind of poison gas. It’s too late to save the commander, but Choy manages to restore the others to health and even offers to join them in their new mission of destroying the poison gas factory, but Lieutenant Mong (Paul Chu) tells him to go home. He’s too old to be of help and would only get in the way. As expected, Choy finds that very upsetting. Unwrapping the giant sword he fought with in his youth, he leaves a note for his adopted daughter Nancy and heads off on his own towards the revolution, but she follows him with her giant spear and is then followed by a cheeky young guy armed with slingshot. 

There is something a little bit suggestive about this rag tag bag of patriots trying to stop the poisonous fumes of a new China wafting over towards the land they love. Pu Yi, the “last emperor” is something of a tragic figure, a bumbling fool with some weird ideas but also a noticeably progressive streak which sees him tell Matsu, in the middle of an otherwise silly and slightly homophobic joke, that he firmly believes love is love and he plans to make a law that says so. He is, however, just a puppet himself, caught between the villainous Matsu and beautiful actress/super spy Kim Pak-fai/Kawashima Yoshiko (Joyce Godenzi).

Matsu is fond of telling the heroes that they cannot win against a force with superior technology, that old Uncle Choy’s sword and fists are useless in a modern world of guns and chemical warfare. To perfect their poison gas, they’ve been working with a local gangster who cares only for money and has been willingly sending them test subjects. Big Nose (Corey Yuen Kwai) is currently engaged in a turf war with the equally greedy Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau), testifying to the tendency of oppressed people to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the true evil. Bobo Bear is also in love with the famous actress Kim Pak-fai and deeply regrets getting mixed up with the Resistance, but later falls for nerdy undercover spy Tina (Fennie Yuen), who is the real brains of the operation, and comes over to the side of right. As does Big Nose after getting a dressing down from Uncle Choy and being confronted with the consequences of his actions by an overconfident Matsu. 

According to Matsu whoever has the best weapon controls the world, but as in any good kung fu movie the best weapon is righteous solidarity. Uncle Choy’s sword turns out not to be so useless after all, while he also makes himself useful as a doctor to the revolutionaries, proving that old people still have a lot to offer and don’t deserve to be put out to pasture by patronising youngsters. Making plenty of space for cartoonish slapstick fun and a series of farcical episodes including the classic misdirected love letter and spy hiding under the bed, The Raid is pure pulp but never pretends to be anything more than it is even while leaving its earnest revolutionaries in media res as if to remind us that a battle still rages even in 1991.


Short clip (no subtitles)

Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳, Wong Kar Wai, 1990)

“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever” laments a lovelorn heroine in Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy ‘60s romance Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳), somehow neatly encapsulating the director’s entire philosophy. The heroes of Days are obsessed with minutes, seconds, hours, years, the barely perceptible passing of time. Clocks pervade the frame, their violent ticking the most prominent element of Wong’s strangely barren soundscape, a constant reminder of a life slowly etched away ceaselessly beaten towards an inevitable conclusion. 

The hero, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), describes himself rather poetically as a bird without legs cursed to fly and fly meeting the ground only once at the moment of his death, an overly sentimental metaphor for which he is later taken to task by the equally rootless Tide (Andy Lau Tak-wah), a former policeman turned sailor who wonders if it’s just a line he uses to seduce lonely women with boyish sadness. We might wonder the same thing as he picks up the lonely Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Macao émigré apparently unable to sleep, by telling her she’ll see him in her dreams before forcing her to look at his watch for a whole minute as if that after 3pm on April 16, 1960 were now a sacred date forever etched in time. She thought that sounded “so sweet”, but as he later tells her Yuddy is not the marrying kind and she too is trapped inside that moment, often framed behind bars or the tiny window of her box office booth before the door is cruelly slammed on her romantic delusion seemingly by automatic operation of the clock. 

In a twist of fate, Li-zhen meets Tide during his previous life as a policeman when she makes a fairly embarrassing attempt to get back together with Yuddy after he reacts coolly to her suggestion of marriage only to discover him with his new love, cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau Kar-ling). “I’m not gonna be as stupid as her” Mimi insists flouncing out of his apartment only to find herself just that, making a desperate visit to Li-zhen at the stadium after the affair has ended to tell her to her back off only for the rather unsympathetic Li-zhen to point out they’ve both been deceived, “he treats all women the same”. 

A perpetual lothario Yuddy moves from woman to woman without touching the ground, but his rootlessness is seemingly born of maternal disconnection in his ambivalent relationship with the Hong Kong sex worker who raised him but refuses to disclose the identity of his Filipina birth mother supposedly a noble woman who for unknown reasons paid a foreigner US$50 a month to raise her son. Like the other women in Yuddy’s life, Rebecca (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) does her best to tie him down, apparently unwilling to reveal his origins in fear he’d leave her, but also mirrors him in her constant quest for affection bought from a series of younger men and apparently one older who threatens their relationship in inviting her to a new life overseas. Ironically enough, she soon tells her son to “fly, fly as far as you can” all the way to the Philippines, though Yuddy already suspects he’s been a flightless bird all along, dead from the very beginning.

Yuddy’s search for closure and identity ends disappointment and a painful lack of resolution, as does the nascent romance between the policeman and the box office girl, her mistimed phone calls amounting to a literal missed connection while Tide ponders lost love from foreign seas, and Mimi tragically chases the ghost of Yuddy all the way to Manila pined for by Yuddy’s self-conscious friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) left behind alone. Trapped in the timeless present, they are each denied either past or future, lost in a lovelorn dream of perpetual longing. As if to ram his point home, Wong shows us another clock and then another man we’ve never seen before (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he gets ready for an evening out, crouching slightly in what appears to be a shallow, sub-divided garret making it clear that these stories have no endings, flying and flying until they hit ground and seemingly born in the air. A woozy, zeitgeisty journey through mid-century loneliness, Wong’s second feature leaves its melancholy heroes consumed by nostalgia for an ill-imagined future unable to escape the cruel tyranny of an interminable present. 


Transfer: Among the more faithful of the recent 4K restorations, Days of Being Wild nevertheless shifts to a slightly greener hue in keeping with the house style adopted for the series, adding to Wong’s sense of melancholy nostalgia and perhaps in keeping with Doyle’s original artistic vision.


Days of Being Wild is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Original trailer (unrestored, English subtitles)

Love on Delivery (破壞之王, Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-Chi, 1994)

Love on Delivery posterBy the standards of ‘90s Hong Kong cinema, early Stephen Chow hit Love on Delivery (破壞之王) might seem refreshingly down to earth but make no mistake this under appreciated romantic comedy gem is as zany as you’d expect from the master of surrealist laugh a minute humour. A curious tale of cultural pollinations, Delivery once again stars Chow as an ineffectual loser trying to impress a girl but this time it’s a battle of wits he ends up winning when he unexpectedly finds himself standing up for “garbage” in the face of arrogant elitism.

The film opens not with its hero, but with judo champion Li (Christy Chung) who finds herself persistently sexually harassed by her slimy dojo leader who is apparently determined to win her because she’s the only woman capable of “throwing him over”. Seeing as his chat up lines are things like “my house is really big and my bed is really comfy come and see”, Li isn’t really interested which is why she ends up kissing in the right place at the right time delivery boy, He (not altogether against his will). He (Stephen Chow) is smitten, but Li has been looking for a “hero”, someone big, strong, and manly who can match her martial arts prowess but also respect her as a human being. Unfortunately, He is a weakling and a coward, as Li discovers when the boss of the dojo interrupts their first “date” and tries to thump He who activates his well honed coward skills and dodges the blow which lands squarely in the middle of Li’s face.

Fearing his romantic dreams have been well and truly shattered, He resolves to become stronger so he can fight back which is how he ends up meeting conman and stall owner “Devilish Muscle Man” (Ng Man Tat) who claims to be the last heir to “Ancient Chinese Boxing” as well as a close friend of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (only he doesn’t like to name drop). Devilish Muscle Man offers to “train” He in the ancient martial arts, for a “small” fee. Though all of Devilsh Muscle Man’s “training” is a sham, He starts to get quite good at it and eventually defeats the dojo boss whilst wearing a giant fluffy Garfield head. However, a new challenger soon enters the arena – a childhood friend of Li’s who went to Japan and has become an “elite” karate champion claims to be the mysterious Garfield head, stealing He’s thunder and Li’s heart along with it! 

Chow may be in a relatively restrained mood, but there are pop-culture references and in jokes galore which eventually culminate in a Hong-Kong vs Japan standoff in which Chow ends up inheriting Devilish Muscle Man’s kung fu persona which saw him fighting in a strange costume inspired by Ultraman (or possibly Chinese Ultraman rip off Inframan). Meanwhile, the big bad – Li’s ex Duan Shui Liu (Ben Lam Kwok-Bun), dresses in an old fashioned Japanese students’ uniform and rails about the “garbage” people of Hong Kong with their “garbage” kung fu which he plans to eradicate through affirming the primacy of karate as the best and only real martial art. He’s first problem is that he actually self identifies as “garbage” – he is only a poor delivery boy working for a tiny cafe which stoops to various scams to trick its customers out of their money and/or complaining and has no real prospects of being able to lift himself out of the gutter despite his new found fighting spirit and commitment to martial arts training. Nevertheless, He decides to own his “garbage” status to stand up for all the other “garbage” people resisting “Japanese imperialism” in the only way he knows how – by using his wits to trick Duan into allowing himself to be defeated.

He, a perpetually “nice guy” who gives away not only his entire wallet but all his clothes to a homeless father, eventually defeats the forces of “elitism” through an acknowledgement of his inferior fire power and an efficient use of the skills he does have to create a confusing atmosphere of chaos which ensures his final victory. A mildly subversive tale of fighting back against “the elite”, Love On Delivery is also a hilarious romantic comedy in which the nice guy gets the girl solely by demonstrating himself brave enough to face defeat with, well if not dignity, perhaps resolve.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)