Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English 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)

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)