Concerto of the Bully (大樂師.為愛配樂, Fung Chih-chiang, 2018)

Concerto of the Bully posterRemember the heady heydays of the Hong Kong rom-com in which a series of zany, often entirely random adventures eventually led to true love? Director Fung Chih-chiang evidently does judging by the innocent charms of Concerto of the Bully (大樂師.為愛配樂) – a beautifully pitched soulmates thrown together romance with a kidnapping at its centre. For many things to work, they need to be in sync, as an unexpected utterance from the vacuous pop star boyfriend of the female lead points out, but sometimes you have to turn the volume down in order to hear the harmony.

Yung (Ronald Cheng Chung-kei) is a petty thug with a difference. Unable to cope with the noisiness of modern life which often pushes him into fits of erratic violence when overwhelmed, he lives out on a remote fishing raft and carries around with him a soothing track he discovered on the internet by an artist known as “Hit Girl”. His life becomes a lot more complicated when he returns home one evening to find a mysterious sack lying in the middle of the floor with a note reading “please feed” right above it. Yung’s no good gangster friend has kidnapped a young woman, Jamie (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling), after recognising her as the girlfriend of a famous pop star from whom he hopes to arrange a ransom. Yung is not very keen on this plan for several reasons but finds himself going along with it. Meanwhile Jamie, who is secretly “Hit Girl”, attempts to plan her escape by ingratiating herself with the guys while thinking about her unfinished composition to keep her mind off the potential danger of her predicament.

The central irony is that Jamie is a girl who loves noise – all the sounds of the world, natural and manmade, are music to her ears and part of the great song of the universe. Yung, however, prefers things quiet save for Hit Girl’s calming song. Forced to babysit Jamie, Yung begins to fall under her spell which is partly weaved solely to lower his guard so that she can escape, but soon enough both begin to get a glimpse of what it is that might be missing in each of their lives.

All the standard romantic comedy tropes are out in force – the boyfriend is a no good heel who isn’t keen on paying the ransom and already has someone else, while Yung is a noble and good man who has been brought low by his no good buddies who have once again gotten him into a lot of trouble. Yung’s inability to process sound turns out to be a life limiting condition which has forced him into a career of violence but Jamie’s musical philosophy eventually allows him to see “another world” – literally, as he re-imagines a crowd of street thugs performing an epic dance routine to Mozart’s Seranade No. 13 in G Major. Unmasked as “Little Fairy”, Hit Girl’s only fan, the shy and under confident Yung gets a new lease on life thanks to Jamie’s less than patient tutelage as she tries to convince him to help her complete her masterwork in time for the big concert finale.

Like her boyfriend said, sometimes it’s no good if it’s not in sync. Many things in the relationship of Yung and Jamie are fake – Jamie has been kidnapped and is taking care to be “nice” and “useful” to her captors, while the pair begin with playacting music through a series of homemade mock up instruments until the arrival of a beaten up tinny piano which might be just the sound Jamie has been looking for. Gradually, the melody begins to come together, working towards a graceful harmony even while the distant drums of trouble in the city continue to threaten their quietly growing romance just as it begins to hit a more authentic key. A strangely sweet love story with a kernel of darkness at its centre, Concerto of the Bully is a hopelessly innocent fairy tale about an unwitting musical genius who never learned to hear his own voice, and a melancholy songstress who finally finds the key to her musical dreams in an unexpected place, as they meet on a floating musical stage which is both silent and somehow alive with all the quiet joys of a melodious life.


Concerto of the Bully is screening in Chicago as part of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema on 2nd October, 7pm, at AMC River East 21 where Director Fung Chih-chiang and Art Director Chet Chan will be present for an intro and Q&A. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The White Girl (白色女孩, Jenny Suen & Christopher Doyle, 2017)

white girl posterFollowing their Hong Kong Trilogy, first time feature director Jenny Suen and veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle get back together for another love letter to the “Pearl of the Orient”. With 2047 always in the back of the frame, The White Girl (白色女孩) is the story of a Hong Kong that was and will be as seen through the space which connects the two. In 2047 the mantra of One Country, Two Systems which has been applied to Hong Kong and surrounding territories since the 1997 handover will come to an end with Hong Kong simply becoming another region of China. With this starting point in mind, Suen and Doyle are left wondering what will happen in the next five years as they watch elements of the city begin to die or be eroded both by the passage of time and by the growing proximity of the 2047 deadline.

The White Girl (Angela Yuen), as she’s called, lives in Pearl Village where they still do things the old fashioned way. Living with her fisherman father, The White Girl dresses in long, dark clothing, and wears sunshades with a large floppy hat which hides her face and gives her a mysterious air of anonymity and otherworldliness. She does this because her father has told her that she is allergic to the sun, as her late mother was, so that she will never stray too far from him. Now a grown woman, The White Girl is beginning to think differently. She no longer takes her medication and has discovered a chest containing her mother’s clothes and a walkman with a tape inside featuring her mother singing her trademark song. Defying her father by walking around the town dressed only in her mother’s vintage white camisole and nickers, The White Girl who once felt invisible is seen by everyone including a new visitor to the village, Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri), a runaway Japanese artist squatting in local ruin.

Pearl Village, like Brigadoon, is a place that doesn’t quite exist. An example of the traditional Hong Kong fishing village which has all but died out, Pearl Village is a timeless place which seems to exist across eternity encompassing all eras and filled with a melancholy nostalgia. The White Girl longs to know the truth about her mother, putting on her very 1960s cheongsam and listening to her sing on her ‘80s walkman before walking to a pay phone to ring a DJ to ask him to play her mother’s song and then listening to it on a portable transistor radio. There are no mobile phones or computers and the major source of info in the village is the little boy, Ho Zai (whose name, in different characters, also means “oyster”), who keeps his ear to the ground and knows everything which goes on in the land that he regards as his.

What Ho Zai has discovered is that the village chief is about to sell them out. Creating controversy with the censor’s board, Ho Zai remarks on a destructive bridge project which will damage the beauty of his village, destroying wildlife and killing the beautiful dolphins which live in the sea off the coast. The “tourists” who come to the village (there is no real reason for a tourist to ever come here) are really developers who’ve come to hear the village chief’s plans which include bulldozing the beautiful mangrove forest Ho Zai loves so much to build a luxury mall.

Also on the list for eradication is the ruined mansion, built in the Chinese/British colonial style, in which Sakamoto is currently living. The White Girl regards the “ruins” as her palace but warns Sakamoto that the villagers believe it to be haunted. Sakamoto brands himself its ghost which touches a nerve with The White Girl whose pale skin and vacant aura have seen her also branded a “ghost”, leaving her feeling alone and invisible, trapped in her tiny, timeless world. Sakamoto, a temporary visitor to the unchanging village, is a literal outsider observing all around him from inside the ruins via the in built camera obscura and finding himself strangely drawn to The White Girl who reminds him of himself.

The White Girl will attempt to save her palace and succeed, but only for a time as her closing monologue tells us. In having spent so long not wanting to become invisible and insisting she is no ghost, she speaks to us as the ghost of a dying a world, occupying a liminal space between past and present where memory and dream collide. Her deeply felt non-romance with the Japanese visitor is destined to remain unfulfilled but that is its point, as she tells us, we exist in the space between us. Pearl Village is a place of endless longing in which familiar music wafts in on the breeze, haunted by its own future and existing within the shadow of an inescapable fall. Beautiful and ethereal, The White Girl is just as elusive as its heroine, lingering like a half remembered dream which ended far too soon leaving only melancholy and irresolvable longing in its place.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)