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.

Far Far Away (緣路山旮旯, Amos Why, 2021)

An introverted IT specialist gets a crash course in romance when he accidentally ends up dating a series of women from the far flung corners of the land in Amos Why’s charming romantic comedy, Far Far Away (緣路山旮旯). An occasionally subversive love letter to a disappearing Hong Kong, Why’s elegantly scripted romance also presents a snapshot of the contemporary society in exploring the various reasons each of the women has rejected the high status, consumerist lifestyle of the cities in favour of a more bespoke happiness elsewhere. 

At 28, Hau (Kaki Shum) has had only one relationship and is still unsure why his previous girlfriend, a former co-worker, broke up with him. His sympathetic hometown friends are forever trying to set him up while he nurses a gentle crush on another woman from the office, A Lee, but is too shy to say anything and worried that her reluctance when colleagues suggest he drive her home after a night out implies that she finds his company uncomfortable. That is not as it turns out quite the case, the reason she didn’t want him to drive her home is that she’d moved from an upscale, prestigious area to a small rural town far out of the city because she broke up with her boyfriend and couldn’t afford the rent but didn’t want anyone to know. 

The constant obsession with men driving women home becomes a minor plot point with several of the women actively questioning why it’s necessary and occasionally even offended while forcing Hau to admit that in most cases he’s offering because he wants to spend more time with them rather than out of a general concern for their safety or simple convenience. Having abandoned the dating app he was working on at work to concentrate on a delivery/map service, he ends up bouncing all around Hong Kong visiting various women even venturing to places so far out he needs to apply for a separate permit to enter while beginning to rethink his life choices realising that the reason he’s so set on stubbornly occupying his family’s flat in the city is rooted in his childhood trauma of having lost his mother to illness and his father to the Mainland in a symbolic orphanhood that hints at the anxieties of contemporary Hong Kong. Hau’s recently married friends discuss the possibility of having children but admit that they don’t really want to do it unless they can move abroad, Hau later speculating they will go to Taiwan while his friend who goes by the ironic name “Jude Law” has a British National (Overseas) Passport. Hau himself admits that he’d never really given it much thought until recently when a prospective partner asks him if he’d ever considered moving abroad mostly to confirm he won’t suddenly announce he’s leaving once they start dating seriously because almost no one can see a future for themselves in a changing Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, each of the women has made a decision to prioritise something else rather than join the city rat race from a youthful young woman living in an idyllic coastal town while determined to marry at 29 to Hau’s college friend Melanie (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying) who chose to work for an NGO because of the better work/life balance that meant she wouldn’t be pressured into endless overtime. Then again another of Hau’s suitors appears to be just as ambitious as any other city dweller while viewing herself superior because her family bought a flat in a provincial area 25 years previously at a preferential rate and then sold it to her at below market value but more than they paid originally which strikes Hau as an odd arrangement between parent and child but speaks to the penny pinching mean spiritedness that leads her to blow up at him because he left a nice tip at a restaurant where service was included in the bill. An artist friend is willing to put up with primitive conditions in a remote mountain village because she’d rather have the stars than city lights, while each of the women also worry that any attempt at romance is always doomed to failure because no matter how keen they are or claim to be sooner or later the guys all ask them to move back to the city prioritising their own convenience while ignoring all of the reasons they chose to live in these very specific places. 

Eventually Hau becomes the exception, realising that the where isn’t the most important question acknowledging that perhaps he’s the one who ought to move in deciding to let go of the childhood trauma in his family home in order to make a new one of his own having figured out what he wants out of life and who he wants to spend it with which in the end dictates the where. Sometimes, love is just around the corner if you’re willing to go and have a look. A gentle celebration of a disappearing Hong Kong both literally and metaphorically, Why’s charming rom-com sends its hero on a roundtrip to love figuring out his place in the world in finding that home really is where the heart is. 


Far Far Away screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2021 DOT 2 DOT CREATION LIMITED

Somewhere Beyond the Mist (藍天白雲, Cheung King-wai, 2017)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist posterCheung King-wai, making his narrative feature debut, opens with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the effect that people, even bad people, are often far more innocent and pure-hearted than most realise, including we ourselves. The quote, overlaid above the vision of the city at night glowing red like dying furnace, introduces us to the story we are about to hear – one which is dark, too dark perhaps to imagine, but then again all too real. Caught in the twilight half light, Hong Kong is fiery cauldron of hell, yet when the sun rises and the mist rolls in, it’s hard to see what the night made so terrible.

As if to underline the confusion, we begin with a lost old man who is desperately searching either for a way in or a way out. His housekeeper eventually comes to find him and bring him home and we discover he is the father of one of our heroines, Angela (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) – a police detective expecting her first child. Angela’s father, Dr. Ho, is suffering from advanced dementia which is beginning to take its toll on Angela’s home life even if she leaves most of the responsibility to her compassionate husband, Tony.

Meanwhile, the bodies of a middle-aged couple have been discovered at a reservoir. The police set about looking for the couple’s missing daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung Yung-ting), only to find her holed up in the mountains with her best friend Eric (Zeno Koo Ting-hin). Connie reacts with eerie calm when informed of the deaths of her parents, merely repeating that she was already aware before agreeing to accompany the police to the station where she, matter of factly, confesses to having been the one who murdered them.

Cheung’s intention is not to create a murder mystery, Connie freely confesses her crime and isn’t particularly interested in explanations or justifications (though as it turns out, she would have plenty). He is much more interested in the examining the society which made such an “unthinkable” crime possible, exposing the dark heart of an increasingly confused city which finds itself pulled in two directions by various political anxieties.

Back with the original image of the city as a pit of hell, each of our protagonists becomes a link in a circular chain of violence, turning their own feelings of oppression, marginalisation, and despair back on their fellow suffers. Connie, as we find out, comes from an extremely dysfunctional home in which her truck driver father lists small time pimping among his “hobbies”, openly masturbates while watching hardcore Japanese pornography in the family living room only enjoying it more for the thought of taunting his teenage daughter, rapes the family’s disabled mother, and seemingly ignores his grown up son. Catching Connie’s friend Eric hiding in a cupboard in her room, he assumes the pair are up to no good and drags the boy out to viciously beat him with his belt just to remind him who it is that is boss around here, pausing only to remind Connie that “a virgin pussy” is worth more money and if she’s that desperate he can find her a client to satisfy both their needs.

Strangely enough, Eric does not completely object to the beating. He sees it as a sign of validation. Like Connie, Eric is also a lonely, marginalised figure but in his case because he is gay and desperately wants not to be. Being mistaken for Connie’s boyfriend is, in his eyes, a kind of proof of his “manhood” and so it’s a beating he is almost grateful to receive unlike those from his schoolmates who taunt him with broom handles and scream homophobic slurs which only add to his feelings of extreme worthlessness. Eric wanted to be friends with Connie to escape both suspicion and loneliness, but she, in a cutting moment of despair, also uses his insecurity over his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy as a “man” against him to get him to help with her plan to free herself of parental tyranny. Connie hates bullies, but she hates people who don’t stand up to them more. Thus she becomes the gentle defender of another marginalised figure – Jessica, an Indian girl who is targeted because she wears trousers under her school skirt, constantly assailed with slurs about “stinky” curry and various other stereotypical insults that leave her in tears.

Eric points out that his beating at the hands of Connie’s father didn’t bother him because it was “understandable” – a father finds a boy hiding in his daughter’s room and chases him out. The logic is sound, it’s a story you’ve heard before – not like the senseless acts of violence which surround him every day and cannot be explained. Connie’s crime too seems “understandable” given all she’s suffered, a precaution taken to save her from a still more terrible fate she feared might soon come her way. This is the uncomfortable realisation with which Angela is faced during her investigation, forcing her to confront her own difficult relationship with her apparently tyrannical father who made her mother’s life a misery. Angela has to accept that she could easily have been Connie, or Connie her, though she ultimately made the (still taboo) decision to place her father into a home rather than continue to look after him herself. Tube fed and alone, Angela’s father is utterly powerless but however much she wishes she could abandon him she continues to visit even if her resentment is plain. Then again, if a parent breaks the contract first in failing to care for their child in infancy, should the child still be expected to care for them when they are old? Perhaps they owe each other nothing other than civility and an attempt at forgiveness.

Asked why she ran to the mountains, Connie replies that she went to live “the life I deserve”. Dreaming of a world “beyond the mist”, free from the city’s confusion and the constant stream of violence passing from one lonely soul to another, Connie transgressed in order to free herself but has only found greater imprisonment and ongoing mental torment. Beautifully photographed, Cheung’s narrative debut is a bleak and gloomy affair but somehow maintains its belief in a better place Somewhere Beyond the Mist even if it continues to elude us.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)