Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子 , Jimmy Wan Chi-Man, 2021)

“No one treats you like an ordinary person, so become an extraordinary one” the heroic mother at the centre of Wan Chi-Man’s Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子) tells her young son as he struggles to find a place for himself as a disabled person in an unaccommodating society. Inspired by the real life story of multi-medal winning Paralympian So Wa Wai (Leung Chung-hang), Wan’s inspirational tale is as much about maternal determination as it is about overcoming preconceived limits but also makes a series of subtle points about how the contemporary society treats disability. 

Wan opens in Guangzhou in 1981 as Wai’s mother Mrs. So (Sandra Ng) frantically rushes him to hospital only to be told that he has jaundice which has resulted in cerebral palsy meaning that he will likely never be able to walk or feed himself. The doctor double checks if the family would like to proceed with treatment given this information to which they emphatically reply they would. A few years later, the family has migrated to Hong Kong and Mrs. So is forced to take Wai with her to her job in a laundry, eventually finding herself at her wits end after his hearing aid goes missing placing her son on the shoot and shouting at him to walk only to shut the belt down just before he reaches the edge. At this point, Wai manages to pull himself onto his feet, proving the doctors wrong and teaching himself to walk unassisted. Witnessing an older Wai run away from neighbourhood bullies gives Mrs. So an idea and she soon tries to enrol him in a club for athletes with physical disabilities only to be turned away because of his age but his decision to join in anyway gets him noticed by former Paralympian relay runner Coach Fong (Louis Cheung Kai-chung) who decides to take him on and train him up. 

In contrast to other sporting biopics, Wai’s path to Olympic success is more or less drama free even as he strives to improve his athletic abilities and overcome the mild resentment among some of his teammates in needing to change their style and position in order to accommodate him. Wan does however hint at the difficulties of living as a disabled person in late 20th century Hong Kong, Fong explaining to Mrs So that the Paralympics aren’t aired on Hong Kong TV and disabled athletes earn only 10% of that earned by the able-bodied. Wai does receive a small subsidy, but the Sos are otherwise forced to scrimp and save so that Wai can continue running, a situation that becomes impossible after his father is injured in an accident and left unable to work. 

It’s also clear that Mrs. So’s all encompassing love for her son causes occasional tension in the family in leaving her younger, able-bodied son understandably feeling neglected while everyone fixates on Wai’s sporting success. Wai’s brother is perfectly aware that he was born in part as a safety net for Wai so that someone would be around to look after him once the Sos have passed away and cannot at times help resenting him. Yet the family unit remains generally united until the older Wai’s prideful resentment of what he sees as his mother’s micro-managing begins to undermine their relationship. “I just want to run” Wai explains, fed up with the series of commercial opportunities his mother has agreed to on his behalf in an attempt to keep him financially secure in the future. When a director for an advert tells him he’s speaking “too well” and asks him to sound more disabled Wai has had enough, leading to a confrontation that ends both in romantic heartbreak and a falling out between mother and son. 

“Catching up is the story of my life” Wai reminds Fong, emphasising the film’s inspirational message that sometimes people have further to go but get there in the end while also signalling the various ways lack of accommodation for his disabilities has continued to hold him back outside of his sporting success. A heartwarming tale of an incredible mother-son bond, Zero to Hero insists that the mutual determination to succeed turned them both into heroes allowing Wai to achieve his full potential as a Paralympian bringing gold and glory back home in defiance of those who told him he’d never be anything. 


Zero to Hero screens Aug. 21 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / 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)

Office (華麗上班族, Johnnie To, 2015)

Johnnie To office poster 1Can love and capitalism walk hand in hand? Perhaps not, at least in Johnnie To’s beautifully choreographed musical exploration of high stakes finance and moral bankruptcy, Office (華麗上班族). Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Office situates itself on the edge of an abyss as the 2008 financial crisis edges its way towards Hong Kong while enterprising businessmen try to figure out how to ride the waves even if that means standing on someone else’s shoulders as they sink deeper into the moral morass that is the modern economy.

Top Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn is about to go public. CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) has long been running the show for her boss and lover, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-fat), who has promised her a sizeable dividend once the floatation is complete. Meanwhile, two new interns have just joined the company, eager to make their marks in the corporate world and ensure they survive their three month probation. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi), “Lee like Ang Lee, Xiang like dream”, just wants to work hard and get rich so he can live a nice life, while his colleague Kat Ho (Lang Yueting) has just returned from studying economics at Harvard and appears to be slumming it in a lowly internship while (unconvincingly) pretending to be from a humble background. The funny thing is no one seems to pick up on the fact Kat has the same surname as the company’s owner, or they might have figured out she’s the boss’ daughter either forced to learn the trade from the ground up or working as a spy among the regular employees. In any case, Li Xiang is smitten.

Love, it seems, is the destabilising force at the centre of this great machine. CEO Chang, an all powerful woman in a male dominated industry, rules the office with a will of iron but allows herself to be manipulated by Ho with whom she has been having a longstanding affair. Ho has a wife in a coma, but neither of the pair object to the office gossip which brands Chang as “Mrs. Ho”, seeing it only as cutely romantic rather than a slight on Chang’s very real authority. Meanwhile, lonely in Ho’s lack of serious commitment, Chang has also been sleeping with her favourite underling, the feted David (Eason Chan), who in turn is getting fed up with feeling like a spare part who’s hit the peak of his career. Unbeknownst to Chang who may have taken her all-seeing eye off the ball, David has started playing with fire in gambling with company money and losing badly. As a counter measure, he’s begun romancing lovelorn accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who unlike Chang, is still facing the work/home dilemma in that her fiancé back on the Mainland is pressuring her to give up work and settle down.

Li Xiang is very keen on following his “dreams” which in the beginning are charmingly naive – he wants a nice life for himself and the ability to pay off his friends’ debts (seemingly for entirely altruistic reasons, not as an excuse to show off). Slowly, however, his new world begins to corrupt him. He’s irritated that he’s not allowed to ride the executive elevator and badly wants in, but is still green enough to chivalrously cover up for Kat’s mistakes, while Kat is so clueless that she forgets turning up to work in designer outfits and in a chauffeur driven car is going to blow her cover. Li Xiang sees through her, but only to the nice part – it never really occurs to him she’s a mole or planning to betray Mrs. Chang who is kind of her step-mother. Chang isn’t blind to office politics. She sees Li Xiang take the blame for Kat and even likes him for it. She also likes his “originality” and plans to take him under her wing for her new expansionist plans but finds herself once again blindsided by all the difficult romantic drama bubbling under the surface of coldhearted capitalism.

David and Sophie decide they want to start a “love revolution”, but David has already gone to a dark place and his romantic confession is immediately followed by a manipulative request to get Sophie to help him with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Li Xiang’s gradual descent into corporatism begins to sour Kat who’d taken a liking to him because he wasn’t like everyone else. They didn’t mean to do it, but they’ve betrayed themselves and others in their relentless pursuit of conventional success. Drunken salarymen at a local bar ask themselves what all of this is for when their kids don’t recognise them and they barely recognise themselves, yet no one quite has the guts to get off the corporate train and go do something else.

In To’s elaborate set design, no one is ever truly able to leave the office. An elegant construction of neon and steel, the abstract theatricality of To’s artificial universe only underlines its essential meaninglessness – something the Office’s denizens eventually come to understand whether they choose to stay or not. As Chang quips, smart guys control money and stupid ones are controlled by it, but she herself is wise enough to know when the game is up and it’s time to move on. Did love destroy the system or did the system destroy love? Beautiful melodies telling us terrible things, To’s anti-capitalist musical crushes its earnest heroes under the wheel of progress while they dance blithely all the way over the edge.


Office screens in Chicago on Oct. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Home with a View (家和萬事驚, Herman Yau, 2019)

Home with a view poster 2Everyone needs an oasis. It might be a mirage, but still you need to believe in it anyway or with the world the way it is you might just go crazy. For the Lo family, that oasis was their tiny harbour view for which they paid handsomely even though their home could be described as modest at best. Relying on the calming vision of the sea to preserve their peace of mind, the family are constantly preoccupied by the rapid increase in high rise apartment buildings which threaten it, but did not bank on a cynical businessman setting up home on the rooftop opposite and putting up a giant advertising billboard to make a few extra pennies.

Adapting the stage play by Cheung Tat-ming, Herman Yau uses the woes of the Lo family to satirise the effects of Hong Kong’s ongoing housing crisis as they find themselves living in a cramped apartment block where everyone seems to have problems but no inclination to mind their own business. Mrs. Lo, Suk-yin (Anita Yuen Wing-yi), is fed up with the butcher (Lam Suet) who lives directly above them and his habit of loudly mincing pork while she’s trying to eat her dinner in peace, while the kids – son Bun-hong (Ng Siu-hin) and daughter Yu-sze (Jocelyn Choi), resent the intrusion of cigarette smoke wafting up from the flat below belonging to an elderly resident whose oasis is presumably tobacco. Meanwhile, Grandpa (Cheung Tat-ming) is in poor health and in the process of losing his marbles all of which makes for a very exciting home environment where chaos rules and there is always something new to bicker about.

Family patriarch, Wai-man (Francis Ng Chun-yu), sunk considerable expense into buying this apartment because of its sea view. In fact he’s still paying off a hefty mortgage which is why the family is engaged in a money saving competition where they challenge each other to come up with the best schemes and bargains, but he is at heart a kindhearted man which is perhaps why he finds himself handing over a huge wad of cash to pay off the overdue rent of the lady next-door who was threatening to commit suicide rather than risk eviction with her husband seemingly having disappeared off somewhere leaving her alone with her young son. He is not, however, above jamming with the system and is himself an estate agent peddling “low cost” subdivided flats with no widows or kitchens and only access to communal bathrooms in disused but not quite redeveloped former industrial buildings.

Desperate to reclaim their access to serenity, the family set about trying to get the cynical businessman opposite, Wong (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to take the billboard down but he proves smug and indifferent to their plight. In fact, his resentment towards those who can afford swanky sea view apartments is one of the reasons he put the billboard up in the first place so he’s not about to take it down just because he’s realised its presence is inconsiderate. Trying to get the authorities, including an old friend with a longstanding crush on Suk-yin, involved proves largely fruitless with the family locked into a bureaucratic nightmare which saps all their energy and only drives them all crazier even as they begin to unite in pooling their efforts to outsmart Wong who insists the billboard is “art” which he made himself and enriches the city.

The intersection between art and advertising, as well as mild motion towards both things as acts of protest, is only one of the film’s meta touches, but its main theme is indeed family and the various ways the modern society both frustrates and cements it. The Los who were always at each other’s throats, became calm sitting together gazing out at the peaceful harbour but later returned to their individual spheres before reuniting in conflict. Meanwhile, we discover that Wong has a sad story of his own which paints him as a lonely man without a family who likes the attention the billboard has brought him because it’s finally forced people to acknowledge his existence. Rather than managing to make friends with him, the Los descend further into their psychotic fury as they try to defeat Wong, ironically rediscovering their family solidarity in the process. “In this terrible world only family can protect us”, Grandpa says, and in this crazy cutthroat society he may be right. Perhaps the best course of action is to all go mad together rather than try to resist the craziness.


A Home with a View was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Drug War (毒戰, Johnnie To, 2012)

Drug War posterIn the world of the Hong Kong action flick, the bad guys are often the good guys, and the “good guys” not so good after all. Even crooks have their code and there are rules which cannot be broken ensuring the heroes, even when they’re forced into morally dubious acts, emerge with a degree of nobility in having made a free choice to preserve their honour over their life. In Mainland China, however, things are a little different. The bad guys have to be thoroughly bad and the good guys squeaky clean. You won’t find any dodgy cops or dashing villains in a thriller from the PRC where crime can never, ever, pay. And then, enter Johnnie To who manages to exactly what the censors board asks of him while at the same painting law and chaos as two sides of the same coin, each deluded and obsessed, engaged in an internecine war in which the idea of public safety has been all but forgotten.

The film begins with the conclusion of an undercover operation run by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in which he successfully disrupts a large scale smuggling operation. Meanwhile, meth cook Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) attempts to escape after an explosion kills his wife and her brothers but drives directly into a restaurant and is picked up by the police. Timmy soon wakes up and tries to escape but is eventually recaptured – from inside the chiller cabinet in the morgue in a particularly grim slice of poetic irony. Seeing as drug manufacture carries the death penalty in the PRC, Timmy turns on the charm. He’ll talk, say anything he needs to say, to save his own life. Including giving up his buddies.

Timmy is, however, a cypher. His true intentions are never quite clear – is he really just an opportunist doing whatever it takes to survive, or does he still think he can escape and is engaged in a series of clever schemes designed outsmart the ice cool Zhang? Zhang takes the bait. Eyeing a bigger prize, he lets Timmy take him into the heart of a finely tuned operation even playing the part of loudmouth gangster Haha in a studied performance which reinforces the blankness of his officialdom. Zhang is certain he is in control. He is the law, he is the state, he is the good.

Could he have misread Timmy? Zhang doesn’t think so. Timmy remains calm, watchful. Eventually he leads Zhang to a bigger drug factory staffed by a pair of mute brothers who have immense respect for their boss. Suddenly Timmy’s impassive facade begins to crack as he tells his guys about his wife’s passing but it’s impossible to know if his momentary distress is genuine, a result of mounting adrenaline, or simply part of his plan – he does, after all, need to get the brothers to give themselves away. Unbeknownst to Timmy, however, the brothers are pretty smart and might even be playing their own game.

To pits Hong Konger Timmy against Captain Zhang of the PRC in a game of cat and mouse fuelled by conflicting loyalties and mutual doubts. Whatever he’s up to, Timmy is a no good weasel who is either selling out his guys or merely pretending to so that he can save them (or maybe just save himself and what’s left of his business). Zhang, meanwhile, is a singleminded “justice” machine who absolutely will not stop, ever, until all the drug dealers in China have been eradicated. Yet isn’t all of this destruction a little bit much? Zhang doesn’t really care about the drugs because drug abuse wrecks people’s lives, maybe he doesn’t really care about the law but only about order and control, and what men like Timmy represent is a dangerous anarchy which exists in direct opposition to his conception of the way the world ought to work.

There is a degree of subversive implication in the seemingly overwhelming power of the PRC coupled with its uncompromising rigidity which paradoxically makes it appear weak rather than strong, desperate to maintain an image of control if not the control itself. The final fight takes place in front of a school with a couple of completely non-fazed and very cute little children trapped inside a school bus – Timmy does at least try to keep them calm even while using them as part of his plan, but Zhang and his guys seem to care little for the direction of the stray bullets they are spraying in order to win the internecine battle with the drug dealers and stop Timmy in his tracks once and for all. A pared down, non-stop action juggernaut, Drug War (毒戰, Dú Zhàn) is another beautifully constructed, infinitely wry action farce from To which takes its rather grim sense of humour all the way to the tragically ironic conclusion.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Three (三人行, Johnnie To, 2016)

Johnnie To is best known as a purveyor of intricately plotted gangster thrillers in which tough guys outsmart and then later outshoot each other. However, To is a veritable Jack of all trades when it comes to genre and has tackled just about everything from action packed crime stories to frothy romantic comedies and even a musical. This time he’s back in world of the medical drama as an improbable farce develops driven by the three central cogs who precede to drive this particular crazy train all the way to its final destination.

Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), is a tough as nails neurosurgeon. Having arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland at 17, she learned Cantonese, got into medical school and has built a fine career for herself but this same drive means she’s unwilling to delegate and constant overwork is beginning to eat into her statistics. She thinks her day can’t get much worse after an angry patient rants and calls her a quack because there has been a complication with his surgery and he’s currently unable to walk but her next patient, a man with a gunshot wound to the head brought in by the police, is about to add to her already long list of workplace stressors.

Shun (Wallace Chung) is actually almost OK except for having a bullet lodged in his brain. Against all the advice, Shun refuses the offer to have it removed surgically because he’s playing a long game with the police and it’s his one bargaining chip. The police’s story is that Shun grabbed a gun and tried to escape whereupon an officer shot him. However, this turns out to be not quite true and Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) has twin worries – finding Shun’s accomplices and covering up the extreme misconduct committed by his team members.

The original Chinese title of the film, 三人行 which means three people walking, is inspired by the traditional saying that among three people you will always find someone you can learn something from. However, the tragedy of these three is that they’re incapable of learning anything from anyone else and are actually quite disinterested in other people. Tong is always thinking of her targets and can’t bear the thought of losing again if Shun dies of his injuries, but rather than learning to step back and recharge, she continues to push herself to near breaking point. Chen is series of walking contradictions – a lawbreaking policeman, so certain of his own ability to counteract crime that he’s lost all accountability. Shun’s big personality flaw is taking far too much pleasure in his playful scams. He wants to make a phone call so he refuses surgery until he can (quoting Bertrand Russell and throwing the Hippocratic oath back at Tong, already nearing the boil), never quite realising that the delay could very well signal the end of everything.

Tong, Chen, and Shun are three pillars of society – the respectability of the medical profession, the authority of law enforcement, and the inevitability of crime. Tong, the most sympathetic, propels herself into overwork but her selfish need to prove herself to herself puts patients’ lives at risk. The police force which is supposed to represent protection under the law, is shown to be corrupt and little more than criminal in itself. Chen says he can break the law to enforce the law, but what he’s really trying to do is save his own skin after going too far. Shun is simply a sociopathic genius intent on showing off his cerebral prowess to anyone who will give him the slightest bit of attention but like all criminals he’s a goal orientated, short term thinker. Each of the three is, in a sense, moving in their own universe and driven only by their own certainty of primacy.

As much as Three is a crime thriller, psychological character piece, and medical drama, what lies at the heart of it is farce. In keeping with much of his work, To’s world is an absurd one filled with eccentric fringe characters who may be more important than they otherwise appear and, as usual, the final god is luck – a paralysed man attempts suicide by throwing himself down the stairs only to suddenly find he can stand up by himself at the bottom, and Chen’s gun jams several times preventing him from taking decisive action. At one very strange juncture, Shun even tries to escape the hospital by making use of the classic boys own adventure tactic of tying a number of sheets together and using them to climb out of the window. To’s true centrepiece takes the form of a tense, exciting shootout which looks like slow motion but was apparently filmed in real time with the actors moving slowly in perfectly choreographed formation. The improbable scene of carnage, prefaced by bombs going off right, left and centre, is conducted to a the strains of a genial pop song extolling Confucianist wisdom. Beautifully balletic, the bullets hit in real time but the actors react as if stunned, allowing us to fully experience all of their fear and confusion at the centre of such a shocking event.

The man who may have the most to teach us the genial old man with a key stealing habit who erupts into a bawdy song as he’s being discharged. He may have the right idea when he suggests that everyone follow his example and learn to laugh loudly to live a happy life. To reinforces his absurd intentions with intense realism, embracing the ritualistic, “theatrical” nature of the operating room with all of its various performances set atop the heated bloody scenes of bodily gore and coldly metallic nature of the surrounding equipment. To’s gleefully graceful aesthetic is back in force for this tale of lonely wandering planets pushed out of orbit by the imposing centrifugal forces of their rivals. Strange and tinged with absurd humour, Three is To is in a playful mood but nevertheless deadly serious.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)