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)

One Second Champion (一秒拳王, Chiu Sin-Hang, 2020)

“All things in their being are good for something” little Yan is told by a sympathetic TV presenter slightly unconvinced by his short-lived celebrity as the “One Second Wonder”. It may not sound like the most complimentary nickname, but in this case it’s intended in the kindest sense referring to the kid’s uncanny ability to see into the future if only for one second. As a child he’d told the TV audience that he wanted to grow up and find a way to use his superpower to contribute to society, but now a dejected middle-aged man the hero of Chiu Sin-Hang’s One Second Champion (一秒拳王) is something of a loser, imbued with a sense of defeat and not quite so much trading on past glory as using his “superpower” as a party trick to earn extra cash. 

As he tells us, Yan (Endy Chow Kwok-yin) was born during a storm, a power cut threatening his new life and leaving him apparently dead for one second to which he attributes the cause of his strange ability. All things considered, however, being able to see one second ahead is almost useless. What good is it to predict the winning lottery numbers or the winner of a horse race if you’ve no time to buy a ticket or place a bet? A nerdy sort of child unfairly thrust into the spotlight as the “One Second Wonder”, Yan has become a defeated middle-aged man working in the bar of an old friend while trying to pay off gambling debts accrued trying to raise the money for an operation for his son, Chi-leung (Hung Cheuk Lok), who is deaf. His total lack of self-esteem is rammed home when Chi-leung points out a classmate who’s been bullying him, often ripping out and damaging his hearing aid. Though Yan vows to talk to the school and the boy’s parents to sort it out, he quickly backs own even trying to force Chi-leung to apologise to the bully in front of his equally intimidating mum. 

The one arena where seeing one second ahead may in fact be valuable is in the middle of a fight which is what brings him to the attention of aspiring boxer Shun (Chiu Sin-hang). Faced with esteem issues of his own, Shun struggles in the ring partly due to his asthma and partly ongoing anxiety as a result of trauma having seen his dad behaving strangely after a fight. Aside from personal success, his desire is to resurrect his dad’s old gym, eventually teaming up with Yan after hearing of his strange ability and hoping his success might help attract more members. In this positive environment, Yan starts to regain a sense of confidence, getting a smart new haircut and paying more attention to personal grooming, while impressing his young son with his unexpected success not to mention reflecting that his “useless” ability might not be so useless after all. 

But then, after a traumatic incident he fears his special powers may be gone and is faced with another choice in whether to continue boxing as a “real” boxer or go back to the defeated life he used to live. Boxing shouldn’t be about gimmicks, according to a young pretty boy star (Chanon Santinatornkul) with an ironic, if sometimes cruel, devotion to the craft marketed like an idol by his ambitious manager, but Yan has to wonder if there’s more to him than the “One Second Wonder”. The conclusion that he comes to is that, as the TV presenter had said, everything’s good for something, one second can make a huge difference, and every choice you make counts. Win or lose, what matters is making the most of your time so why wait when you could start right away. A soulful tale of self-acceptance, the power of mutual solidarity, and the restorative qualities of physical discipline, Chiu Sin-Hang’s warmhearted drama is an ode to forging your own destiny, one second at a time, while remaining true to yourself. “Our superpower is never giving up” Yan tells his young son, no longer so afraid of the sound of his own heart beating, as they walk off into the sunset One Second Champions win or lose. 


One Second Champion streams worldwide (excl. China/Spain/Canada) until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

My Prince Edward (金都, Norris Wong Yee Lam, 2019)

(C)My Prince Edward Film Production Limited

“Why do you all think that marriage means happily ever after?” A conflicted young woman asks the man attempting to railroad her into a life of conventional respectability. “It doesn’t mean that” he explains, “But there’s no happiness if you don’t get married”. In 21st century Hong Kong can it still really be that a woman’s success or failure is measured by her age at marriage? The debut film from Norris Wong Yee Lam, My Prince Edward finds its heroine asking if there isn’t more to life than marrying a man you don’t love because it’s what everyone seems to expect. 

31-year-old Fong (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) has been in a committed relationship with wedding photographer Edward (Chu Pak Hong) for the last seven years, but she’s been keeping a secret from him. 10 years previously, she and her friend Yee (Eman Lam Yee-man) underwent sham marriages to Mainlanders in return for cash so they could rent a flat with a third friend, Mabel. Fong believed that the agency would deal with her “husband” on their own, arranging his Hong Kong residency permit and thereafter a divorce but although Yee’s “marriage” went off without a hitch, Fong’s hit a snag in that the agent was arrested so her husband never got his ID card and she never got her divorce. The reason she’s worried now is that she overheard Edward tell his assistant to photoshop his client’s marriage certificate to redact any mention that he’s been married before to avoid potential embarrassment at the ceremony.

The fact is, Edward is a strangely conservative, patriarchal sort of man and she knows he might not be very understanding even if she sits him down and explains that she’s technically still married to someone else. Everything might have carried on as normal if Edward had not taken it upon himself to make an ostentatious public proposal that Fong could hardly have refused even if she’d wanted to. The public proposal is perhaps another manifestation of Edward’s manipulative tendencies, but is also mostly undertaken to please his conservative and equally possessive mother (Nina Paw Hee-ching) with whom he still shares a joint bank account at the age of 31. Too afraid to face the potential consequences of the pair finding out, Fong attempts to track down her “husband”, Yang Shuwei (Jin Kaijie), to convince him to co-sign the divorce papers so they can come through before her mother-in-law’s preferred wedding date in a few months’ time. 

The grand irony is that Fong only did the sham marriage because she felt trapped by her conservative parents who objected to a teenage romance. She moved out to find freedom, but now feels trapped within the claustrophobic district of Prince Edward and most particularly the Golden Plaza shopping centre which houses her apartment and the bridal shop where she works which is next-door to Edward’s photography studio. She wanted to move into a swanky new flat, but Edward’s mother is dead set on buying the place where they currently live so Edward won’t have to move, an arrangement which suits him fine. Edward, meanwhile, is prone to jealous rages and Fong can hardly leave the apartment without getting 30 messages asking where she is and when she’ll be back. 

It turns out that “freedom” was what Shuwei was looking for too. He wanted a Hong Kong ID card as a stepping stone to going to America, hoping to make worldwide travel easier than with a PRC passport. Ironically, he can’t understand why Fong puts up with Edward’s prehistoric attitude and encourages her to reconsider marrying a man who’s already borderline abusive. Fong doesn’t quite want to admit it to herself but she feels the same, only she doesn’t have the courage to resist. She’s been successfully keeping Edward at arm’s length all these years, but now that the subject of marriage has been raised she’ll have to make a firm a decision. 

Working in the bridal shop she sees enough stressed out, unhappy couples going through the motions to realise that it’s not all sunshine and flowers, while it sounds like her family life was not exactly a bed of roses growing up. What she can’t seem to do, however, is to give herself permission not to marry. Unexpectedly getting his wings clipped, Shuwei asks her what it is she wanted to do and where she wanted to go, questions that no one else has really asked and Fong doesn’t know the answers to. If she stays with Edward, she might never find out. Like the flipped over turtle she tried to rescue from a pet shop, Fong runs the risk of swapping one tank for another, ending up trapped inside the Golden Plaza for the rest of her life being bossed around by her mother-in-law and walking on egg shells around the fragile Edward which seems like a heavy price to pay simply to be accounted respectable. “You don’t know what freedom is” Shuwei scolds her, confused that she chooses to stay when she has the choice to be anywhere she wants. The real Prince Edward gave up his throne for love, choosing one kind of freedom at least or perhaps just swapping one tank for another. Fong doesn’t know where she wants to go, but is beginning to realise that she has a choice and choosing herself is no bad thing. 


My Prince Edward screens on March 8/12 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)