Lost Lotus (未见莲华, Liu Shu, 2019)

A grieving woman finds herself caught between the tenets of Buddhist thought and the contradictions of the modern China in Liu Shu’s emotionally complex drama, Lost Lotus (未见莲华, wèi jiàn lián huá). The paradoxes of Buddhism are, in a sense, a mirror for those of the contemporary society which has become mercilessly consumerist, obsessed with the material in direct rejection of the spiritual, yet even those who outwardly profess Buddhist values of compassion, goodness, and forgiveness are not perhaps free of the consumerist mindset in which everything has a price and for every transgression there is simply a fine to be paid in the next life rather than this. 

An intellectual teacher, Wu Yu (Yan Wensi) describes herself as irritated by her mother’s (Zhao Wei) devotion to Buddhism, viewing it in a sense as slightly backward and superstitious. Nevertheless when her mother is suddenly killed in a late night hit and run, she finds herself agreeing to hold a traditional Buddhist funeral guided by her mother’s friends at the temple despite having been warned by the police that going ahead with the cremation will obviously make it much more difficult to find the killer. While immersing herself in Buddhist thought helps her reconnect with her mother and deal with her grief, she continues to search for the driver determined to get some kind of Earthly justice in addition to the karmic. 

Increasingly worried and frustrated by Yu’s growing religious mania, her husband (Zhao Xuan) concentrates on finding those responsible in the hope of bringing closure so that they can try to move on with their lives as a couple. A kind and compassionate, modern man (he evidently does all the cooking), Yu’s husband does his best to support his wife in the depths of her grief but is himself conflicted particularly when he discovers that the man driving the car is a member of a rich and powerful elite who believes himself to be above the laws of men. 

Yu’s newfound Buddhism begins to change her outlook, though she struggles to orient herself in a world which is so at odds with its twin contradictory philosophies. Running parallel to her own quest for justice, she finds herself drawn into the struggles of one of her pupils who wanted to quit school because he has to look after his father who was badly beaten by thugs working for developers angry that he had refused relocation. Yu is originally quite unsympathetic, she and her husband blaming the boy’s father for valuing money over his life, cynically believing he must have been angling for a bigger compensation pay out though of course it is probably not so simple. While Yu and her husband are a two-income, professional household, the boy’s family are living in poverty having been evicted from their home, the father bedridden because of his injuries and therefore unable to work. Yu’s quest for justice strains her relationship with her husband and may later have economic consequences as his career prospects are used as a tool to convince them to back off, but her need for retribution affects only herself. The boy’s mother, however, feels terribly guilty knowing her obsessive quest to have the thugs held accountable is endangering her son’s future, but knowing also that she cannot simply give up and let them win. 

This is exactly the dilemma that preoccupies Yu as she weighs up how much of her anger is personal and how much societal. The driver, Chen (Xiao Yiping), offers them sizeable compensation which her husband is minded to accept, not for its monetary value but because taking the money means it’s over. But Yu wants “justice”, she resents the idea that there was a price on her mother’s life or that the culprit can simply pay a fine to assuage his guilt. Even justice, it seems, has been commodified. Yet Chen is also a Buddhist, subverting his beliefs to absolve himself in emphasising that all is fated and Yu’s mother’s death is a result of her karma from a previous life. His sin now pay later philosophy grates with Yu, undermining her new found faith in the Buddhist principles of compassion and goodness as the supposed devotee directly refuses to apologise for his role in the death of her mother. 

As her husband asks her, however, what sort of justice is she looking for? Does she want an apology, a jail sentence, to kill him with her own hands? Yu doesn’t know, lost in a fog of grief and spiritual confusion attempting to parse the contradictions of her mother’s faith and a society that has become selfish and consumerist, founded on elitist inequality which allows the rich and powerful to escape the constraints of conventional morality let alone the laws of men. In the end the only justice she can find is a retributive act of violence that perhaps forces Chen to feel something at least of her pain, paving the way for a kind of catharsis though not perhaps healing. An embittered portrait of the modern China, Lost Lotus suggests there can be no justice in an unjust society and only an eternal purgatory for those who cannot abandon their desire to find it. 

Lost Lotus streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trivisa (樹大招風, Frank Hui & Jevons Au & Vicky Wong, 2016)

Trivisa posterIt’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate the fact that a film named for the three Buddhist poisons – delusion, desire, and fury, is intended as a criticism of Hong Kong as an SAR that revels in the glory and subsequent downfall of three famous criminals who discover that crime does not pay right on the eve of the handover. Mentored by Johnnie To, Trivisa (樹大招風) is directed by three young hopefuls discovered through his Fresh Wave program each of whom directs one of the film’s three story strands which revolve around a trio of famous Hong Kong criminals.

Back in the ‘80s, as Mrs. Thatcher delivers her pledges on the Hong Kong handover, King of Thieves Kwai Ching-hung (Gordon Lam) gets stopped by a random police patrol, kills the officers, and then has to fake his identity to escape. 15 years later he’s a petty mobile phone trafficker dreaming of pulling off a big score. Meanwhile, Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), once known for his AK47 brandishing robberies is a “legitimate businessman” smuggling black market electronics into Hong Kong and bribing Mainland officials to do it, while Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) is a flamboyant gangster revelling in underworld glory and dreaming of eternal fame.

Rather than weave the three stories into one coherent whole or run them as entirely separate episodes, the three strands run across and through each other only to briefly reunite in the ironic conclusion. The most famous of the three real life criminals, Kwai Ching-hung’s arc is perhaps the most familiar though rather than fighting an existential battle against his bad self, Kwai’s quest is to regain his title as Hong Kong’s most audacious thief. To do this, he’s reunited with an old friend and comrade in arms who’s retired from the life and married a Thai woman with whom he has an adorable little daughter. Unbeknownst to him, Kwai has not come for old times’ sake but is taking advantage of the fact that the family live directly opposite his latest score. Employing two Mainland mercenaries, Kwai has his eyes on the prize but his friend is wilier than he remembered, is quickly suspicious of Kwai’s friendship with his daughter, and has his suspicions confirmed when he finds his kid’s backpack full of guns.

Yip’s story, by contrast, is one of diminished expectations and ongoing financial woes. An early scene at a restaurant finds Yip in the company of Mainland officials to whom he must scrape and bow, placating them with various bribes and engaging in the strange trade of precious vases which seems to pass as currency among corrupt civil servants. Corporate shenanigans and business disputes, however, are no substitute for good old fashioned firefights and Yip’s frustration with his new career is sure to lead to some kind of explosion at some point in time.

Cheuk becomes the lynchpin of the three as he takes an advantage of a rumour that the three “Kings of Thieves” are getting together to plan a giant heist to track down the other two and see if he can make it work for real. The most successful and happiest in his life, Cheuk has made his fortune out of ostentatious crime – kidnapping the sons of the extremely wealthy for hearty ransoms. He is, however, bored and dreams of making a giant splash which will ensure his name remains in the history books for evermore – i.e., blowing up the Queen.

Facing the approaching handover, each is aware the world will change, unsure as to how they’re in the process of trying to secure their futures either way. Kwai wants one last heist, Yip has already begun courting Chinese business, and Cheuk just wants to be the face in all the papers across the entire Chinese world. Kwai’s sin is “desire” – he wants one last hit as a criminal mastermind and he’s willing to take advantage of his friend (and even his friend’s young daughter) to get it, Yip’s sin is “fury” as dealing with constant humiliation leaves him longing for his AK 47, and Cheuk’s failing is “delusion” in his all encompassing need to be the big dog around town, all flashy suits and toothy grins. On the eve of the handover they all meet a reckoning – betrayal, a stupid and pointless death, or merely ridiculous downfall.

The heyday of crime has, it seems, ended but that’s definitely a bad thing, laying bare a change in dynamics between nations and a decline in the kind of independence which allows the flourishing of a criminal enterprise. Bearing To’s hallmark in its tripartite structure, ironic comments on fate and connection, and eventual decent into random gun battle, Trivisa is a ramshackle exploration of a watershed moment in which even hardened criminals must learn to live in a brave new world or risk being consumed by it.

Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)