Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Empty Hands (空手道, Chapman To, 2017)

“You have to remember. You’ll always meet someone stronger than you. They might beat you down, but no matter what you need to have the courage to face it.” the defeated heroine of Chapman To’s second feature The Empty Hands (空手道) is reminded by her rediscovered mentor pushing her towards a literal reclaiming of her space in accepting her father’s legacy. The title, a literal translation of the characters which form the word “karate”, is perhaps also an allusion to the heroine’s sense of powerlessness and displacement even as she learns to rediscover a source of strength in that which she had previously dismissed as a worthless burden. 

30-something Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) is the daughter of a Japanese émigré, Akira (Yasuaki Kurata), who came to Hong Kong in 1972 on a work transfer and later married a local woman. Teaching karate as a hobby in his spare time, he eventually discovered that in the Hong Kong of the late 70s and 80s, martial arts was a valuable commodity and so he sunk all his savings into buying a sizeable flat in Causeway Bay, converting the living area into a Dojo with the family relegated to neighbouring rooms. The business did well but the family floundered and when Mari’s mother asked Akira to mortgage the dojo to help out her brother who ran into financial trouble during the 89 crisis his refusal and the uncle’s subsequent suicide led her to leave the family. A lonely child, Mari complains that her overly strict father forced her to practice karate against her will, something which she gave up as a brown belt after an unexpected tournament defeat swearing off the practice ever since.

When Akira dies suddenly, however, Mari is forced into a reconsideration of her life choices on discovering that he has left only 49% of the apartment/dojo to her with the controlling share entrusted to a former pupil, Chan Keung (Chapman To Man-Chat). Prior to this discovery, she had been cynically planning to subdivide the apartment into seven units, renting out six and living in the seventh solely on her proceeds from exploiting Hong Kong’s notoriously difficult housing market. Mari is, it has to be said, often difficult to like, defiantly aloof and with a healthy contempt for other people even throwing back a racial slur, albeit with a pinch of irony, at a little boy who’s been frequenting the dojo expressly in order to fight back against the discrimination he faces in everyday life as a member of the Indian community. This might be something you’d expect Mari to show a little more empathy for but she seems ambivalent in her sense of identity immediately introducing herself as Japanese on giving her name to man who works at the radio station where she gets a job as a security guard and with whom she drifts into a doomed affair. 

Mari’s affair with a married man is another thing of which she believes her father disapproved, but it’s also a reflection of her low self-esteem and awkward relationship with paternal authority in that she continues to seek but is afraid to ask for approval from emotionally distant men. She claims to have only one friend, Peggy (Dada Chan Ching), whom she somewhat cruelly dismisses as “all boobs and no brain”, explaining to her that what she likes about Ka Chun (Ryan Lau Chun-Kong) is his “loyalty” ironically admiring his refusal to leave his childhood sweetheart wife but also confident that he will one day choose her. Beaten down by life, Mari has perhaps backed away from the fight passively retreating while refusing to deal with her conflicted sense of identity and desire. She resents the implication that she petulantly jacked in karate after a single defeat destroyed her sense of confidence, but as we discover it is indeed her fear of failure which has been holding her back. Chan Keung’s bet that he will sign over his share of the apartment if she can remain standing, even if she loses, after three rounds in an upcoming competition is then a subtle way of getting her stand up again and rediscover a sense of confidence to fight for herself in the arena of life. 

Ironically enough, Chan Keung had been kicked out of the dojo for doing just that, told off for using karate to prove himself when its true purpose should be in the defence of others in need of help. He rediscovers the true spirit of karate after rescuing a little girl from a predatory triad, but Akira’s mission is also one of redemption for Chan Keung as he patiently mentors the originally reluctant Mari back towards an acceptance both of her father and of her relationship with karate along with the confidence that counters defeat. A meditative mood piece from the hitherto comedian To anchored by a stand out performance from Tang (who apparently spent six months training for the role) pushing back against glossy rom-com typecasting, The Empty Hands is less martial arts movie than gentle life lesson as its beaten-down heroine learns to fight her way out of existential malaise towards a more forgiving future. 


The Empty Hands streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Prince Edward (金都, Norris Wong Yee Lam, 2019)

(C)My Prince Edward Film Production Limited

“Why do you all think that marriage means happily ever after?” A conflicted young woman asks the man attempting to railroad her into a life of conventional respectability. “It doesn’t mean that” he explains, “But there’s no happiness if you don’t get married”. In 21st century Hong Kong can it still really be that a woman’s success or failure is measured by her age at marriage? The debut film from Norris Wong Yee Lam, My Prince Edward finds its heroine asking if there isn’t more to life than marrying a man you don’t love because it’s what everyone seems to expect. 

31-year-old Fong (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) has been in a committed relationship with wedding photographer Edward (Chu Pak Hong) for the last seven years, but she’s been keeping a secret from him. 10 years previously, she and her friend Yee (Eman Lam Yee-man) underwent sham marriages to Mainlanders in return for cash so they could rent a flat with a third friend, Mabel. Fong believed that the agency would deal with her “husband” on their own, arranging his Hong Kong residency permit and thereafter a divorce but although Yee’s “marriage” went off without a hitch, Fong’s hit a snag in that the agent was arrested so her husband never got his ID card and she never got her divorce. The reason she’s worried now is that she overheard Edward tell his assistant to photoshop his client’s marriage certificate to redact any mention that he’s been married before to avoid potential embarrassment at the ceremony.

The fact is, Edward is a strangely conservative, patriarchal sort of man and she knows he might not be very understanding even if she sits him down and explains that she’s technically still married to someone else. Everything might have carried on as normal if Edward had not taken it upon himself to make an ostentatious public proposal that Fong could hardly have refused even if she’d wanted to. The public proposal is perhaps another manifestation of Edward’s manipulative tendencies, but is also mostly undertaken to please his conservative and equally possessive mother (Nina Paw Hee-ching) with whom he still shares a joint bank account at the age of 31. Too afraid to face the potential consequences of the pair finding out, Fong attempts to track down her “husband”, Yang Shuwei (Jin Kaijie), to convince him to co-sign the divorce papers so they can come through before her mother-in-law’s preferred wedding date in a few months’ time. 

The grand irony is that Fong only did the sham marriage because she felt trapped by her conservative parents who objected to a teenage romance. She moved out to find freedom, but now feels trapped within the claustrophobic district of Prince Edward and most particularly the Golden Plaza shopping centre which houses her apartment and the bridal shop where she works which is next-door to Edward’s photography studio. She wanted to move into a swanky new flat, but Edward’s mother is dead set on buying the place where they currently live so Edward won’t have to move, an arrangement which suits him fine. Edward, meanwhile, is prone to jealous rages and Fong can hardly leave the apartment without getting 30 messages asking where she is and when she’ll be back. 

It turns out that “freedom” was what Shuwei was looking for too. He wanted a Hong Kong ID card as a stepping stone to going to America, hoping to make worldwide travel easier than with a PRC passport. Ironically, he can’t understand why Fong puts up with Edward’s prehistoric attitude and encourages her to reconsider marrying a man who’s already borderline abusive. Fong doesn’t quite want to admit it to herself but she feels the same, only she doesn’t have the courage to resist. She’s been successfully keeping Edward at arm’s length all these years, but now that the subject of marriage has been raised she’ll have to make a firm a decision. 

Working in the bridal shop she sees enough stressed out, unhappy couples going through the motions to realise that it’s not all sunshine and flowers, while it sounds like her family life was not exactly a bed of roses growing up. What she can’t seem to do, however, is to give herself permission not to marry. Unexpectedly getting his wings clipped, Shuwei asks her what it is she wanted to do and where she wanted to go, questions that no one else has really asked and Fong doesn’t know the answers to. If she stays with Edward, she might never find out. Like the flipped over turtle she tried to rescue from a pet shop, Fong runs the risk of swapping one tank for another, ending up trapped inside the Golden Plaza for the rest of her life being bossed around by her mother-in-law and walking on egg shells around the fragile Edward which seems like a heavy price to pay simply to be accounted respectable. “You don’t know what freedom is” Shuwei scolds her, confused that she chooses to stay when she has the choice to be anywhere she wants. The real Prince Edward gave up his throne for love, choosing one kind of freedom at least or perhaps just swapping one tank for another. Fong doesn’t know where she wants to go, but is beginning to realise that she has a choice and choosing herself is no bad thing. 


My Prince Edward screens on March 8/12 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

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)