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)

Tracey (翠絲, Li Jun, 2018)

Tracey PosterHong Kong has often sought to present itself through its cinema as an ultramodern, cosmopolitan city, claiming a kind of cultural freedom from Mainland oppression. In truth, however, there are areas in which it may disappoint itself. Li Jun’s debut feature, Tracey (翠絲), is in many ways an empathetic attempt to redress the balance in making plain the destabilising effect emotional repression can exert across an entire society, causing nothing other than the mutual unhappiness which provokes one person to oppress another in service of nothing more than conventionality.

A married, 50-something father of two grown up children, Tai-hung’s (Philip Keung) conventional, ordered life is disrupted when he receives a phone call telling him that a treasured childhood friend, Ching, has been killed while working in Syria as a war photographer. Unbeknownst to anyone, and not quite admitted even to himself, Ching had been the love of Tai-hung’s life and his death finally forces him into a reconsideration of the feelings which are now, perhaps, a lost opportunity. The sense of loss is doubly brought home when he collects Ching’s partner, Bond (River Huang), from the airport and discovers that he had been legally married to another man in the UK though the pair’s marriage certificate is not valid in Hong Kong which presents a problem in trying to repatriate Ching’s ashes.

Bond, himself from Singapore where homosexuality is at least technically still illegal, knew of Ching’s love for Tai-hung and Tai-hung’s unrealised attraction to Ching but struggles with Tai-hung’s decision to not to embrace his sexuality, preferring to marry and have children in pursuit of a conventional life. Despite having grown up in an arguably even more oppressive society, Bond is 20 years younger and has perhaps benefitted from an increasingly liberal world in which greater awareness has afforded him the vocabulary to process Tai-hung’s complex identity with a delicacy that was not available to Tai-hung in his youth, nor to his quasi-mentor Brother Darling (Ben Yuen) – a performer of Chinese Opera who specialised in female roles and confided to Tai-hung that he identified as a woman but is unlikely to have ever come across the term “transgender” let alone claim it as an identity.

Nevertheless, Bond’s arrival begins to push Tai-hung’s long repressed longing to the surface even if his first attempt to explain to Bond that he too identifies as a woman is met with mild derision as Bond misunderstands him in assuming his claiming of a female identity is an attempt to reject his homosexuality. What Tai-hung tries to explain to him is that he does not see himself as a gay man but a straight woman and therefore felt that pursuing his love for Ching, a man who loved men, would never have been a possibility. Fearing his gender identity would never be accepted by anyone, Tai-hung kept his true self hidden even from his closest friends and unwittingly placed a wedge between himself and the man he loved.

Bond pushes him still further with the perhaps unfair charge that his entire life has been essentially selfish and founded on the continued deception of his wife and children. Despite its seeming conventionality, Tai-hung’s family life is not altogether happy. His wife, Anne (Kara Hui), is a fiercely conservative sort who prizes nothing so highly as respectability as she proves by rifling through the maid’s room in search of evidence of sexual indiscretion which she later uses as grounds to suggest firing her. As the couple’s son Vincent (Ng Siu-hin) points out, there is also an unpleasant racial component to her puritanical morality which objects to her Indonesian maid having a right to a private life, fearing that she will bring “disease” into the house by sleeping with another “foreigner”. This is perhaps why she objects to her pregnant daughter’s (Jennifer Yu) desire to divorce her highflying lawyer husband when she discovers that his serial philandering has resulted in a sexually transmitted disease which he has passed to her and which has thankfully been detected early enough to avoid harming the baby.

Despite Anne’s pleas with her daughter that you don’t reject someone for turning out to be different than you assumed them to be, she is obviously not ready to accept Tai-hung’s authentic self despite having been aware that there was always something slightly amiss within their marriage which prevented it from being a true and total union. It is perhaps this sense of nagging incompleteness and unhappiness which has pushed Anne’s need for respectable conventionality into overdrive, as if a superficially successful adherence to the rules could be a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Her own suffering then seeks to push her daughter into the same space as a self-sacrificing housewife who has exchanged personal happiness for the cold comfort of social respectability. 

Thanks to reuniting with a now elderly Brother Darling and finding himself accepted by the younger Bond, Tai-hung begins to find the courage to embrace his true self and discovers that many of his friends and relatives are more supportive than he might have assumed even if some of them may need time to get over the initial shock. As his mother tells him, the important thing in life is learning to find one’s peace of mind – something which could only be helped by abandoning the outdated Confucian ideas which continue to define the social order in favour of something warmer, freer, and fairer built on mutual acceptance and compassion.


Tracey screens as the closing night gala of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 24, 7pm, at AMC River East 21. It will also be screened in London as the closing night of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival on 9th May, 6pm, at BFI Southbank where members of the cast and crew will be attendance for a Q&A.

 Original trailer (English subtitles)