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)

Till We Meet Again (生前约死后, Steven Ma, 2019)

“What if you let go of my hand and I get lost?” an over anxious little boy asks his mother. “Then you should stay where you are,” she tells him, “Mum will definitely come back for you.” It’s an instruction the now adult Wai (Steven Ma Chun-Wai) has perhaps taken too literally, struggling under the weight of grief and filial guilt while standing still waiting for his mother to find him again in the hope of earning her forgiveness for a sin he does not quite want to remember. Semi-autobiographical, Steven Ma’s Till We Meet (生前约死后) again is at once a dark psychodrama of man undone by loss but also a deeply touching evocation of an unbreakable mother son bond. 

Now a solitary salesman, 30-something Wai has only one wish – to reunite with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in over 10 years fearing that she bears some kind of grudge against him. We in fact see Mui (Josephine Koo Mei-Wah), his mother, angrily telling another woman, Lai (Bee Wong Chiu-Yam), that she refuses to see her son though the scene is not quite as it first seems. After abruptly quitting his job, Wai wanders out into the street and endures some kind of mental breakdown after which he visits his psychiatrist who reminds him that his mother is dead and has been for some time. 

Wai avows that he doesn’t like taking his medication because it makes him feel “sluggish” but increasingly finds his mental universe fracturing, shifting between sepia-tinted memories of his early childhood during which his mother first became ill and his life as a young man during which she suffered a relapse and later passed away. We begin to doubt Wai’s perception, uncertain if people and events he encounters are “real” or a product of his psychosis. His mother, ghost or merely spectre of memory, hovers on the sidelines apparently unwilling to see him though perhaps for his own good in hoping he will finally be able to move on and learn to be happy in acceptance of his loss. 

Tracey (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying), his perhaps unrealistically invested psychiatrist, reminds Wai that he isn’t the only person who’s ever been bereaved or felt abandoned, left behind by those who have gone far away. She herself lost her mother young and was then abandoned by her father who left her in the care of an uncle who too abandoned her and ran off with all her father’s money. Another ghostly, perhaps imagined, conversation with Mui reveals that again Tracey may not have the full story and may never get it but unlike Wai may still have the chance to achieve a kind of closure with the traumatic past. He meanwhile carries the burden of his repressed guilt as it slowly works its way to the surface, cutting through his fragile psyche like a knife. 

While Mui’s conversations with third parties presumably taking place entirely within Wai’s mind may hint at a deeper psychological crisis they are essentially attempts to work out his guilt and shame, one-sided dialogues that eventually guide him back towards an acceptance of the truth he was intent on forgetting beginning with the traumatic fact of his mother’s death. Perhaps to some Wai’s maternal attachment may seem extreme, as the psychiatrist echoes in reminding him he’s not the only son to suffer such catastrophic loss, but it’s underpinned by a sense of filial guilt that lies at the heart of their bond in his worry that his own distress pushed Mui into pursuing a path she may otherwise have rejected on the grounds it would only cause her more pain for an additional few weeks of life. 

Trapped in his grief and guilt, Wai staggers through a nightmarish existence elegantly manifested in Ma’s abrupt tonal shifts as Wai finds himself staggering along a darkened corridor complete with faulty lighting and a single exit, while the sky itself seems to brighten to more romantic tones as he embraces a fantasy of a happier time drawing closer either to a kind of closure or the victory of his delusion whichever way you wish to read it. A painful journey through guilt and grieving, Ma’s unsparing drama provides few easy answers for living with loss but does perhaps allow its hero a degree of escape if only in unreality. 


Till We Meet Again streams in the UK until 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be (Baby復仇記, Luk Yee-sum, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered. 

In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy. 

Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene. 

Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy. 

Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes. 

In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete. 

Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.


Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)