Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Merry Christmas (聖誕快樂, Clifton Ko Chi-Sum, 1984)

Merry Christmas poster 2The Lunar New Year movie solidified itself as a concept in the early ‘80s and is often an occasion for heartwarming silliness celebrating food and family. Arriving in 1984, Merry Christmas (聖誕快樂) shifts the zany action up to the Western festive season as a widowed Hong Kong dad struggles to express his feelings for the woman next-door who’s been looking after his young son while his two grown up kids contend with romantic troubles of their own in the rapidly developing city.

“Baldy” Mak (Karl Maka) is a newspaper editor who lost his wife some time ago. Though everyone else is getting into the holiday spirit, Baldy is celebrating his birthday which gives his goodnatured colleagues an excellent excuse to prank him and though it ends in him getting joke fired, it does eventually bring him a bonus and a new car. Meanwhile, he and the kids – earnest teenage son Danny (Danny Chan Bak-Keung) and aspiring model Jane (Rachel Lee Lai-Chun), are largely dependent on their neighbour, Aunty Paula (Paula Tsui Siu-Fung), for domestic assistance including looking after Baldy’s toddler son, Baldy Junior, while he’s out at work. Danny and Jane are hoping their dad will eventually ask Paula to marry him, but he remains diffident. Until, that is, she drops the bombshell that she might not be able to look after Junior anymore because she’s had a letter from her cousin in America (Yuen Wo-Ping) who wants to marry her and she’s thinking of emigrating to be with him.

Baldy, not a bad man but unafraid to resort to underhanded tactics, spends the rest of the picture avoiding telling Paula how he really feels in favour to trying to break up her possible romance with her cousin. An early joke sees him fighting for parking spaces in his beaten up car, something which eventually gets him into an argument with the good-looking yet similarly underhanded John (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing) who fakes a limp to get nearby bystanders to push Baldy’s car out of the way, causing Baldly to try and get his own back only for it to hilariously backfire. John, meanwhile, takes an instant liking to Baldy’s daughter Jane, which instantly gets Baldy on edge. A typically strict dad, he takes Danny aside to instruct him about how to get the best bang for his buck taking girls to the pictures, but is quick to warn Jane that no man can be trusted and she’s to be home by 10pm at the latest. Needless to say, it’s a moment of minor embarrassment for him when the guys at work are looking at tasteful glamour shots to include in the paper only to discover that Jane’s been earning a few extra pennies as a model.

The double standards only increase as Baldy and Danny hatch a plan to put Paula’s cousin off by convincing him she’s actually a sex worker and in debt to a sleazy pimp. Meanwhile, Baldy takes him out on the town to show him a few sights while setting up amusing tableaux that make him out to be a violent pervert, groping women, kissing men, and kicking little kids in the face. Paula, meanwhile, remains thoroughly fed up with Baldy’s antics, keeping her composure when he tries to make her jealous by dressing like a teenager and cosying up to Danny’s love interest “Jaws” (beautified by getting her braces taken off and wearing contacts), but asking her cousin to secretly record everything Baldy says to him on their weird “date” around Hong Kong.

Charming period details abound, like the “3D” adult movies Baldy rents (and inappropriately watches with Baldy Junior) which have to be watched with “sunglasses”, and Baldy’s constant inability to hail a cab coupled with his atrocious parking techniques and delightful pre-photoshop efforts to frame the cousin and then expose him with a slideshow lecture delivered solely for Paula’s benefit. Meanwhile, the festive spirit is ever present with the ubiquitous Christmas trees, Poinsettia forest outside Baldy’s door, and seasonal set piece at Paula’s nightclub. Delightfully silly, Merry Christmas is a zany holiday treat, a middle-aged rom-com in which a slightly ridiculous widower and a lonely nightclub singer discover the courage to fight for love thanks to a little Christmas magic and the fierce support of meddling family members.


Original trailer (no subtitles)