Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Kevin Ko, 2018)

Dude's Manual posterPersonas – university can be all about figuring them out but more often than not the key comes from an unexpected direction. An unexpected direction is where Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Tdān Gào) eventually takes us after kicking off with a scary crime thriller opening in which our hero gets himself temporally mixed up with a serial killer investigation only to earn himself the embarrassing nickname “Air Pump” when his “victim” is revealed to be a blow up doll. An unlikely meet cute brings him into the orbit of the most popular girl at school and subsequently into her plan to win back her reputation after getting it tarnished with his naffness at the expense of another shy and lonely student, but then again, isn’t everyone going to get what they wanted? Perhaps yes, perhaps, no.

He Xiaoyang (Dong Zijian) is in the last year of uni and is still single, never having had a girlfriend. An embarrassing incident with a blowup doll has earned him the nickname “Air Pump” around campus, while his roommates – “sexpert” Boshi (Yuan Fufu), and rich kid Ren Yi (Jin Jin), are doing a little better when it comes to the ladies, but neither of them is much help to the nerdy Xiaoyang whose main passion is the homemade flying machine he’s crafting in preparation for a competition. At an exclusive party Ren Yi gets the boys into, Xiaoyang’s life takes a dramatic shift when popular pretty girl Guan Xin (Elaine Zhong) throws up on his T-shirt and then becomes trapped with him in a bathroom from which they fail to escape before a budding paparazzo snaps them together in a compromising position. Guan Xin, mortified that anyone might think she hooked up with “Air Pump”, hatches a plan to get Xiaoyang a “real” girlfriend to clear her name and retrieve her top girl status.

As rom-com plots go it’s a fairly old fashioned one. Guan Xin decides to set Xiaoyang up with a shy concert pianist, Li Shushu (Jessie Li), who hardly ever comes to parties because of her intense social anxiety. She is therefore, Guan Xin rationalises, perhaps grateful for the interest and Guan Xin is really “helping” two people by manipulating them both into a possible relationship which might just have legs. Of course, while she’s doing that she and Xiaoyang can’t help but grow closer even if Guan Xin can’t quite bring herself to admit it.

The spanner in the works is that Xiaoyang, despite himself, is a pretty nice guy. He plays along with Guan Xin’s scheme but quickly goes off book, demonstrating genuine understanding and connection with the shy Shushu as he gently helps to bring her out of her shell. He is, however, also falling for Guan Xin but doubting that she will ever set aside her haughty attitude and accept her growing feelings for him.

The central irony is that Guan Xin can’t see all the ways in which she and Xiaoyang have already progressed through the standard rom-com gateways to love. Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s friends are also enjoying a lesson in romance with both of their respective girlfriends as sex obsessed Boshi has to learn to be less superficial, and Ren Yi that money really doesn’t buy everything. It is hard to get past the unethical using of poor Shushu who becomes a sacrificial pawn in Guan Xin’s grand plan, but then again perhaps she learns a thing or two herself even if it’s just how to subvert someone else’s nefarious plan in order to engineer a happier out come for all.

Ko has a few laughs at the expense of the young men and women of modern China. Lives lived online have contributed to an already shame hungry culture and given birth to a fair few unscrupulous paparazzo gossip hounds who might be better sticking their cameras in more useful places, while also reinforcing traditional ideas about social hierarchy. Guan Xin, in many ways taking on the masculine Svengali role as she “fixes” the feminised ugly duckling of Xiaoyang, has some pretty cynical ideas about modern dating – using jealously as a weapon, trying to turn the “nice” Xiaoyang into a hot bad boy player that all the women will go crazy for, but then her plans do seem to work and Xiaoyang sees himself rising through the loser ranks to become an eligible campus catch. Like all good rom-coms, however, he doesn’t let himself be changed on the inside so much as rediscover what it is that makes him him, flying off into the sky on the wings of a romantic dream crafted with his own hands.


Dude’s Manual screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival on 14th July at 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Port of Call (踏血尋梅, Philip Yung, 2015)

port of call posterBoy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.

Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?

Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which each dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.

Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.

Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.

Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.

Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.   


Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)