The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊, Ho Cheuk-tin, 2022)

Loosely based on a real life case in which a man murdered his parents then reported them missing and even went to the media for help looking for them, Ho Cheuk-tin’s The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊) distances itself from the sensationalism of the crime to ask a series of questions about human nature and the operation of the criminal justice system. The first of those questions is obviously why, but not just why did he murder the people who raised him but why did he go to the media and why did he eventually decide to confess. 

One reason Henry (Yeung Wai-lun) gives for killing his parents is that his upbringing was abusive, a fact later confirmed by his sympathetic cousin herself a devout Christian. It seems fairly clear that Henry has an inferiority complex for which he blames his mother and father, resentful that they made him play piano and wouldn’t let him play basketball to which he attributes the small stature that led to merciless bullying in school and fractured masculinity in adulthood. Ho often places the camera slightly behind Henry’s shoulder, emphasising his smallness and neatly reflecting the way in which he literally feels as if everyone is looking down on him. He has so far had a life full of failure, studying abroad but failing to make the grade and resentful towards his more successful older brother Ho Jin to whom his parents force him to sign over his share of a flat they bought as an investment after Henry’s gambling debts and inability to find a job left him unable to pay the mortgage. Losing a flat in Hong Kong is worse than losing a life Henry’s lawyer points out at trial, attempting to justify the resentment that led to Henry’s decision to not only murder but brutally dismember his parents. 

Another question mark, however, hangs over Henry’s accomplice and why exactly he chose to take him down with him. Angus (Mak Pui-tung), a man he met at a job interview, seems to have learning difficulties and may not quite understand what is going on. His sister describes him as naive and explains that he has a tendency to make friends with those who only hope to exploit him and may have been manipulated by Henry in fear for the safety of himself and his family or else simply not to lose the friendship. The extent of his involvement with the crimes remains unclear, Henry claiming that he was present and participated in the killing of his mother, while Angus insists that he only took part in the disposal of the bodies. Perhaps uncomfortably the film asks how much we can really trust Angus, suggesting that he may simply be manipulating the sympathy of others and is not really quite as naive as he makes out. 

In any case, his treatment at the hands of the police is as unjust as it comes, intimidated into offering a confession simply to make the interrogation stop so that he sleep and get something to eat. In court the truth hardly matters, a trial is about constructing a credible narrative. The lawyers for joint defendants Angus and Henry attempt to undercut each other, Henry’s arguing he is not responsible on the grounds of mental illness while implicating Angus as the instigator, and Angus’ intent on emphasising his disability suggesting was merely manipulated by Henry. The jurors in the jury room struggle to make sense of the case but also of their own role, tasked not with assessing guilt or innocence but the strength of the argument based on the evidence they’ve been given only for some of them to base their convictions on gut instinct anyway. 

They are perhaps aware that Henry is a master manipulator, he lied to his own brother and fooled all of Hong Kong with his video appealing for support before dramatically confessing online. He has obvious delusions of grandeur and idolises Hitler, claiming that had he been born at the right time he could have done what Hitler did. Ho often dramatises his moments of introspection as fantasy in which Henry poses as Hitler and speaks German to those around him before snapping back to reality and finding him experiencing a moment of clarity that makes him step back. Yet there are moments of heartbreaking authenticity in the “friendship” between the two men such as in their meeting at the job interview as they bond in a shared sense of rejection, the subtext of their crimes inviting the reading that they are intended as acts of vengeance against the society into which neither of them was able integrate. 

In the closing scenes, a policeman remembers evidence left behind during the initial sweep of the crime scene by his incompetent boss and returns to Angus’ apartment to find a migrant family living there who tell him they know there was a murder but they don’t care about things like that and are just grateful to have a home. Henry too continues his dark jokes about permanently devaluing his family’s apartments, but seems genuinely distressed on realising that his brother really may abandon him for his total lack of remorse while Angus finds himself exploited by the tabloid press only too eager for all the gory details. Ho’s closing images which find Angus enveloped in the webs of the spiders which plague his dreams perhaps hints at his place in a complex network of forces which contribute to his exclusion from prejudice towards the disabled to fatphobia along with the manipulation of men like Henry who promise friendship but only take advantage of his inability to resist. Then again, the fact of the matter is that you’ll never really know the truth, whether Henry did it all for the attention and ended up alone anyway or if it really was Angus who planned everything and fooled all of Hong Kong, like the jury all you can do is weigh up the evidence and draw your own conclusions.  


The Sparring Partner screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival and will open in UK cinemas on Nov. 18 courtesy of CineAsia.

G Affairs (G殺, Lee Cheuk-pan, 2018)

G Affairs poster 1“Many think Hong Kong is getting better, but I can tell you for sure Hong Kong is getting worse” says the dejected hero of Lee Cheuk-pan’s striking debut, G Affairs (G殺). Reminiscent of Fruit Chan’s landmark chronicle of handover malaise Made in Hong, G Affairs finds itself in a city once again in crisis where the young struggle to see a future, abandoned or misused by the older generation who think only of themselves in an increasingly nihilistic world of violence and transaction.

Lee opens with an arresting scene shot in 4:3 in which a teenage boy practices his cello while a scantily clad woman opens the door only to be dragged back to the couch by a burly policeman who proceeds to have his way with her until a severed head suddenly bounces in through the French doors. The story of how the head came to land there brings together a disparate collection of people from all walks of life – teenage cello player Tai (Lam Sen), his classmate Yuting (Hanna Chan), her autistic friend Don (Kyle Li), her corrupt cop dad “Master Lung” (Chapman To Man-chak), former sex worker stepmother Mei (Huang Lu), and high school teacher Markus (Alan Luk Chun-kwong) with whom Yuting has been experimenting with oral sex.

Today’s lesson is brought to us by the letter G – chosen by Don as his favourite letter in the Western alphabet connected as it is to many of his beloved computer words, but reminiscent to Yuting of a human skull with its jaw hanging open. Above it all, Yuting resents her fellow students at the elite high school, especially the immature boys who nickname her “G” behind her back for a number of reasons ranging from an unflattering comparison to a busty classmate and the fact that her stepmother was a sex worker the slang word for which sounds like G in Chinese. Tai, meanwhile, is not well liked either and also considers himself superior to his surroundings, proclaiming that only losers need friends and frequently dobbing in his classmates for their bullying behaviour. Don, a few years older, is associated with another G word – “gay” which people seem to assume him to be for unclear reasons, and is an outcast because of his autism.

The three seem to be more or less abandoned by their parents. Tai lives alone, a melancholy musician who believes that “things of value cannot be found in the world” only in music, literature and art, while his parents have long since departed in search of riches. “A family that’s never home is not a family” he explains to mainlander Mei who hoped to find a new life for herself in Hong Kong but even with her present “family” feels even more alone than she ever had before. Her stepdaughter Yuting intensely resents her, regarding her father’s affair with Mei as the primary cause of her mother’s gastric cancer and subsequent death. Yuting also resents her father, ashamed of his embarrassing gangster antics and tendency to spout high minded quotes to mask his essential superficiality. Neglecting his daughter, Lung positions himself as a kind of father figure to Don to whose parents own an internet cafe which facilitates some of Lung’s dirty work.

Dirty work is something of a Lung speciality but as Tai says, he’s not even that bad a man merely someone trying to make a fast buck in the burgeoning Hong Kong underworld. Calling himself “Master Lung”, he thinks of himself as maintaining his own kind of order – “one country, two systems” as Yuting later ironically describes her complicated home life, but may actually be on the “better” side of law enforcement as we witness the legitimate police waterboard a terrified Don who is largely unable to answer their questions in the way they insist on asking them, and physically abuse a guilty Markus while threatening to expose his illicit relationship with Yuting and, it turns out, her stepmother Mei. Another middle-aged hypocrite, Markus confesses only to introducing Mei and her sex worker sister to his church group in the belief that they “deserved salvation”.

That may not be a view commonly held by most as Mei finds out during an impassioned conversation with Yuting’s headmistress who berates her for her “shameless” past. Speaking as a mainlander, a trafficked woman, and a sex worker, Mei hits back by asking what right Hong Kong people have to look down on her and why it is her background in sex work is so problematic that everyone seems to be telling her it would be inappropriate for her to be a mother which is only what she’s trying to be to Yuting despite her animosity. Lung might have married Mei, but he wastes no time denigrating other mainland women trafficked to the Hong Kong underworld and cooly brushes off complaints after shooting a man with the justification that no one cares about another dead mainlander. Mei does her best to be “happy”, but learning that her own mother has been executed by the Chinese state for opposing its oppression leaves her adrift, longing to go “home” but knowing there is no home to go to and no safe land even in Hong Kong.

Children are the adults of tomorrow, Yuting explains, but the adults of today have robbed them of any possible future. Lee’s depiction of contemporary Hong Kong is one of increasing chaos, a hopeless place that has lost its way. The older generation think only of money while the young want something more but struggle to find anything of meaning in the soulless modern world which seems to be imploding all around them. Strangely hopeful, yet infinitely nihilistic, Lee ends on the single word “Go” as his troubled protagonists find their own kind of peace in the abyss of the modern city.


G Affairs was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)