Dualities abound in the stories of two frustrated fathers and the sons who vow to be nothing like them in Malaysian director Lau Kok-rui’s paternal drama, The Sunny Side of the Street (白日青春). The fathers are in their way looking for a place in the sun but struggle to find it, while the sons want nothing but their affection and approval but remain resentful for their repeated failures. Each affected by the legacies of geographical displacement, they remain free floating if looking for safe harbour though perhaps in all the wrong places.
The parallels between embittered taxi driver Yat (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and former lawyer turned refugee Ahmed (Inderjeet Singh) are amply demonstrated by the opening sequence in which each is late for a wedding after Yat rams into the van Ahmed had borrowed from store owner Ali to transport a secondhand fridge. Yat arrives just in time to see his son, Hong (Endy Chow Kwok-yin), make the toast at his wedding but thank his father-in-law, a senior policeman at his precinct, while looking daggers at Yat whom he only invited a few days before out of a sense of obligation. Ahmed meanwhile was supposed to be a witness at a wedding between a Pakistani man and an Indonesian woman at the refugee camp not far from where Yat lives which the officiant is keen to remind them is binding in the eyes of Allah but not so much the government of Hong Kong.
As a somewhat prejudicial radio show playing in Yat’s car explains, Hong Kong is a point of transit. If their claims are upheld, the refugees will not settle there but be moved on to other countries such as Canada where a family at the wedding are about to travel taking the best friend of Ahmed’s son Hassan (Sahal Zaman) with them. The radio show talks about “fake refugees” describing them as a drain on resources depriving local people of services they should otherwise be entitled to while it’s clear that many don’t seem to see the refugees as equals and think of them as lazy shirkers with criminal proclivities. Yat repeatedly uses a racial slur to refer to Ahmed and immediately tries to pin the accident on him assuming the policeman will also jump to the conclusion that it must be Ahmed’s fault for being a bad driver only the policeman doesn’t quite play along even when pulling Ahmed aside for an ID check.
The irony is that Yat is also a refugee who swam to Hong Kong from the Mainland and is still carrying trauma from his flight in the same way many like Ahmed are yet cannot find it within himself to empathise with him, only to act with entitlement and absolve himself of blame through manipulating his connections with the police. He has quite clearly lost his moral compass as the repeated motif of him looking the one which led him to Hong Kong but now appears to be broken makes plain. Hong pointedly refuses to help his father and is clear they should go by the book, but his less rigorous friend is only too keen to help. In any case the petty vendetta between the two men, Ahmed sticking to his principles and refusing to lie to make the situation go away and Yat insisting on enforcing his privilege by forcing him to back down, escalates with tragic results eventually forcing Yat to wrestle with the consequences of his actions and not least the causes of his estrangement with his son.
Hong tells him that he doesn’t want to be a man like him who is unable to protect his family, while Hassan snaps at Ahmed that his acts of petty thievery are better than being poor like his father. Yet while Hong has swung in the opposite direction, raising himself to be a man who is compassionate and dedicated to justice, Hassan is in danger of going off the rails not least because he has bad eyesight and is falling behind at school because even as something as simple as glasses for their son is not in the family’s reach. Ahmed’s dodgy friend Numen is forever trying to get him into crime, knowing that refugees are not permitted to work or even accept monetary gifts, but he refuses while Hassan begins to see a way of taking control of his situation though thievery and rebels against his father as he does so.
When Yat begins to take an interest in Hassan it’s mainly to assuage his guilt in knowing that he ruined Ahmed’s life and has left a boy without a father for whom he is now responsible. Yet it’s also in a way an attempt to repair the relationship he could not rebuild with his son while addressing the latent trauma from his own escape from Mainland China which he has otherwise buried through heavy drinking that finally resulted in a liver transplant from Hong that only seemed to deepen the sense of debt and obligation between them. Perhaps Hong Kong is a transitory place after all, each of them in some way displaced and not least from each other while continuing to hope for a better place in the future only to discover nothing more than loneliness and uncertainty if tempered by love and the shades of a frustrated hope.
The Sunny Side of the Street screens March 12/17 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)
Images: (C) Petra Films Pte Ltd