First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Liu Yulin, 2016)

someone to talk to illustrated posterYouth looks ahead to age with eyes full of hope and expectation, but age looks back with pity and disappointment. Adapting her father’s novel, Liu Yulin joins the recent movement of disillusionment epics coming out of China with Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Yī Jù Dǐng Yīwàn Jù). Arriving at the same time as another adaptation of a Liu Zhenyun novel, I am Not Madame Bovary, Someone to Talk to takes a less comical look at the modern Chinese marriage with all of its attendant sorrows and ironies, a necessity and yet the force which both defines and ruins lives. Communism believes love is a bourgeois distraction and the enemy of the common good (it may have a point), but each of these lonely souls craves romantic fulfilment, a soulmate with whom they might not need to talk. The desire for someone they can connect with an elemental level becomes the one thing they cannot live without.

In the prologue, Aiguo (Mao Hai) is a young and dashing military officer about to marry the glowing Lina (Li Qian). The pair are blissfully happy and just so in love it might not be bearable. They can tell each other everything and they talk for hours. About to hand over their application to register a marriage, shaking with excitement, the new couple are interrupted by two extremely unhappy people there for the opposite reason – divorce. They’re in the wrong place, but someone asks them why they want to separate only for the woman to tersely reply that they don’t talk anymore. Aiguo and Lina look at them askance, they can’t envisage anything like that ever happening to them.

Flash forward a few years and Aiguo has left the military (along with its fancy uniform) far behind him to become a lowly cobbler in a rundown village. The marriage has obviously gone cold. Aiguo and Lina have a little daughter, Baihui (Li Nuonuo), but barely exchange a few words with each other and the ones there are are usually hot and angry. It seems to be an open secret in the village but eventually someone tips Aiguo off that Lina is spending too much time with a handsome local wedding planner, Jiang (Yu Entai). Not wanting to believe it, Aiguo brushes the rumour aside but then again it makes sense. Forcibly exposing his wife and her lover, Aiguo delivers an ultimatum but fails to repair the broken connection. When Lina leaves, he vows revenge, threatening to kill one or both of the illicit lovers but, unable to find her, is forced to address his ambivalent emotions in a more contemplative way.

Despite all of the hopes and expectations of Aiguo and Lina’s early romance, their life together has run its course, frustrated by a series of issues no one wants to talk about. No longer in the military, Aiguo’s economic status is low and unlikely to improve. Lina, perhaps, wants more than Aiguo can give her and the atmosphere in the house is tense and cold. Their daughter, Baihui, wants the latest toy car that her wealthier friends have but Aiguo, even if he could perhaps find the money, does not want to buy it for her, offering the excuse that it will distract her from her studies.

Told from Aiguo’s point of view the film is less kind to Lina who has found herself trapped in a marriage to a man she no longer loves. Her choice is not one of economic escape, though her equally married lover is clearly wealthier and better educated than Aiguo, but motivated by the simple desire to find “someone to talk to”. Jiang is married to a local baker whom Aiguo eventually tries to recruit into his revenge plot, cruelly ruining her happiness in enlightening her to the truth. In a much worse position than Aiguo, Xinting (Qi Xi) considers suicide not only out of the humiliation of being a betrayed spouse (turning violence on herself where Aiguo plans to turn it on others) but of the knowledge of the position that an abandoned wife finds herself in. Aiguo’s 39 year old unmarried sister Aixiang (Liu Bei) knows this pain well enough and has experienced a life of suffering and loneliness after herself attempting suicide following an unhappy love affair. Once married or not, prospects for women past the common age of marriage are not good and whatever anyone might have said about women holding up half the sky, it almost impossible to survive alone.

Everyone tells Aiguo to let Lina go but he stubbornly holds on to his anger and the pain of betrayal. After a while he decides to just forget about it but custom dictates he take some kind of revenge hence he plans to take a kind of vacation pretending to look for her. On his travels he finds more misery and heartbreak by re-encountering an old school friend whose marriage has also collapsed but she has learned to be much more stoical about it than Aiguo and gives him some valuable advice. Yes, everyone should talk more – especially about the things which are hard to discuss within the context of a marriage but equally the fact that Aiguo and Lina no longer talked was merely the manifestation of the unbridgeable gulf that had developed between them. There are no happy marriages in Someone to Talk to, perhaps love really is an unhelpful bourgeois distraction, but Aiguo at least still seems to believe in its potency even if it has betrayed him, finally realising he ought to be thinking about the future rather than living in the past. Perhaps no one is able to escape this particular kind of culturally enforced loneliness, but no one will ever find out by continuing to suffer needlessly trapped inside their own delusions.


Someone to Talk to was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)