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)

Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2, Herman Yau, 2020)

“Anger can destroy everything” according to the voiceover opening Herman Yau’s Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2), a thematic sequel to the original Shock Wave once again starring Andy Lau as a Hong Kong police bomb disposal officer battling serious threat to the island’s transport infrastructure but also picking up themes from the pair’s subsequent collaboration White Storm 2 in which the veteran actor had starred against type as a Batman-esque billionaire vigilante fighting a one man war on drugs. The villains here claim they want “change”, but in reality want little more than to burn the world, enraged by its refusal to recognise or remember them consumed as they are by wounded male pride. 

The hero, Fung (Andy Lau Tak-wah), finds himself suffering from amnesia after encountering the second serious accident of his professional life. When we first meet him, he’s essentially playing the same role as the first film, a cheerful, slightly cocky bomb disposal expert with a potentially reckless streak born of his willingness to risk his own life to save those of others. When he’s injured on a job, tricked by a random booby trap while trying to free a trapped cat, and loses his leg he reacts with characteristically upbeat stoicism quickly adjusting to his new prosthesis and determined to get back to work, training intensely with the help of his friend Tung (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who was also injured in the same blast only not so seriously. Despite passing all the fitness criteria Fung is fobbed off with an offer of a desk job in police PR, refused a return to the bomb squad as the panel quite openly admit not so much because they feel his disability impairs his ability to do the job as they fear public blowback should something go wrong and they be blamed for having hired a disabled person in the first place. 

It’s less a sense of discrimination than unfairness that fuels Fung’s growing sense of anger and resentment not only towards the police force but towards society in general which he now feels regards human beings as little more than disposable tools. He rejects the sense of himself as “disabled”, internalising a sense of societal shame keen to remind everyone that he is not impaired proving himself capable above and beyond the force’s criteria but is still rejected while Tung, who suffered only minor burns, is permitted to return to duty and even gets a promotion. His friends later recount that he became a different person after the accident, angry and embittered as if at war with the world. 

Yet after encountering a second accident, Fung loses his declarative memory which is to say he still has his everyday skills such as walking around (including using a prosthesis), getting dressed, brushing his teeth, using a computer and presumably the mechanics of bomb disposal but no longer remembers his own name or how he ended up in hospital now at least implicated in an act of major terrorism. Without his memories, Fung is a blank slate, freed from all the trauma and resentment that may have pushed him towards the dark side and returned to the innate goodness of a soul untouched by the world’s cruelty. The question is, which way will he turn, back towards the darkness or further into the light as the Fung they once new who willingly risked his life for others? In any case, he finds himself potentially misused by his well meaning ex Pong Ling (Ni Ni) who engages in some dubious psychology involving false memory implantation to convince him that he’s been working for the Hong Kong police undercover, hoping to engineer a softer landing for him than the realisation that he may be responsible for the deaths of at least 18 people as a member of an anarchist sect going under the apt name of “Vendetta”. 

Like Fung, the leader of Vendetta is an angry man resentful of having been forgotten by someone he cared about who had simply grown away from him. He rages against the world partly as a consequence of his aimless privilege having discovered his wealthy family made their money peddling opium with the assistance of the colonial authorities, but also as a direct result of childhood bullying and frustrated male friendship. Vendetta claims it wants to stop the world from getting “worse”, but all it really has is anger and the intense hurt of wounded pride. These men refuse to be “KO’d by this sick society” but in the end all they want is to be seen, to be recognised and remembered. To ease their sense of belittlement and impotence, they plan to burn the world by literally severing connections with it. 

Yau takes aim at the various systems which generate this kind of anger, hinting at the shockwaves of ingrained societal discrimination even if Fung internalises a sense of stigmatisation in his intense need to prove himself free of “disability”. Robbed of his memories, Fung’s anger dissipates allowing his natural capacity for selfless heroism to resurface along with a healthy desire to reflect on his own behaviour, at least as much as can he rely on the sometimes duplicitous vagaries of memory both his own and that of others as he searches for the truth of himself and his “vendetta” with the world. Torn between risking his life to save others and blowing it all to hell, Fung ends up doing both, sending shockwaves throughout his society in a deeply ambivalent act of personal and societal redemption. 


Shock Wave 2 is available to stream in the UK until 12th May as part of the Chinese Cinema Season. It will also be released on DVD/blu-ray on 7th June and digitally on 14th June courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.

After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.

The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.

The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.

Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.

Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say. 


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words