Reviews From Hong Kong Cinema 2018

by Peter Wong on September 25, 2018

SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series returns with its 8th edition.  From September 28-30, 2018 at San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre, attendees will have a chance to catch seven new films from Hong Kong ranging from a biopic about a 1970s Cantopop group to dramas featuring characters confronting their feelings about the neurodivergent.

Opening this year’s series is “Tomorrow Is Another Day.”   This award-winning drama concerns a family riven by the stresses of caring for an adult autistic son.  Wong Kam Fa (Teresa Mo, who won a Hong Kong Film Award for her Best Actress performance) cares for her 20-year-old autistic son Kwong with the help of her driving teacher husband Wong Yuen Shan (Ray Lui).  However, Yuen Shan has gotten tired of the stresses of caring for Kwong and has been having an affair with the young nurse Daisy. Kam Fa’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity results in his moving out. Can Kam Fa find a way to move on, or will her desire for revenge against Daisy consume her?

Writer/director Tai-lee Chan’s debut film is at its best capturing the small triumphs and hardships of caring for Kwong.  Seeing the young man jogging with his mother or showing his fascination with fish makes him look like a playful otherworldly creature.  His bird like noises and comprehension of single syllable words reinforce this impression. However, Kwong’s anger fits become truly terrifying given his lack of restraint and the bruises left on the people he strikes.

Popular prejudice against the neurodivergent complicates Kam Fa’s caring for Kwong.  If it’s not wondering aloud whether Kwong’s condition is divine punishment, it’s mothers openly yanking their little children away from the presumably dangerous young man.  Potential employers refuse to give Kam Fa part-time work because of Kwong’s presence.

Teresa Mo’s restrained performance sells both her character and the film.  Were Kam Fa more open with her emotions, the clearly unchanging state of Kwong’s autism would have caused her to snap emotionally.  Generally keeping her feelings bottled up makes carrying on day-to-day doable. Occasionally, Kam Fa’s mask does slip when, for example, relief suffuses her face.

But the film’s only partially successful in showing the downside of Kam Fa’s keeping her emotions pent up.  Treating Kwong primarily as someone she gives medicine to or cooks for prevents Kam Fa from seeing her son as possessing feelings despite his difficulty in communication.  How she learns that lesson will not be spoiled here.

Kam Fa’s fantasies about murdering Daisy for stealing Yuen Shan feel jarring instead of an organic part of the film.  While Chan generally avoids using suspenseful music in these sequences, the violent visuals clash with the sense of mundane realism characterizing the rest of the film.  Also, the information Yuen Shan reveals about his sometimes thorny relationship with Kwong could have been revealed in a more satisfying manner than his confession to Daisy.

The semi-ambiguous note the film ends on works well enough.  There’s a possibility of forgiveness even if not explicitly stated.  More importantly, Kam Fa’s circumstantial inability to plan for tomorrow doesn’t means that she’ll never find happiness.

***

The other film in the program about living with the neurologically diverse is the ensemble drama “Distinction.”  Its dramatic engine is an end-of-year school musical for a special educational needs (SEN) school. Music teacher Grace Chui patiently helms the musical.   But personal concerns, particularly about her stalled education career and her reluctance to have children herself, have made the stresses of production particularly difficult.   Zoey may be an elite Band 1 student, but she’s caught between the insane pressure to get into a good university and the personal blossoming that results from her volunteering time for the musical.  Budding juvenile delinquent Ka Ho is a Band 3 (aka failing) student. Doing time at the musical will hopefully get his arrest record wiped clean. But it might also help Ka Ho improve his relationship with younger brother Ka-Long, who’a a SEN student at Chui’s school.

First-time feature director Jevons Au previously came to San Francisco filmgoers’ attention with his “Dialect” segment in the dystopian Hong Kong-set speculative fiction anthology “Ten Years.”  That segment acerbically showed the disastrous effects of a proposed Mainland Chinese government mandate to treat Cantonese as an alleged dialect of Mandarin.

Au’s feature takes aim at two different targets: the cutthroat succeed at any cost mentality of Hong Kong’s education system and Chinese attitudes towards the neurodivergent.  Both targets are shown to be different facets of a socially accepted callousness towards anyone perceived as below average in society. But of the two targets Au takes on, “Distinction” succeeds more when it focuses on the SEN students and those who interact regularly with them.

Part of that success comes from the fact that sympathetic treatment of the neurodivergent in Hong Kong cinema is still a rarity.  The mentally retarded are usually treated as objects of ridicule or aversion. “Distinction” acknowledges that attitude in such moments as passersby filming SEN student Yin sitting on the sidewalk to his mother’s despair or Zoey’s classmates making sure hand sanitizer is available after touching some SEN students.

But Au’s film effectively makes its plea for treating SEN kids with dignity without denying the existence of their mental condition.  Yin still deserves love when his mother is no longer able to take care of him. Also, SEN kids are not the only human beings facing loneliness in life.  Why should their neurodivergence automatically mean they cannot count on human companionship? The song in the school musical that makes these points will only fail to move those who possess Donald Trump-levels of callousness towards others.

The non-actor who plays Ka-long will also steal the viewer’s heart.  The boy’s mental condition doesn’t exclude his displays of compassion and even love towards his family.  Ka-long’s emotions feel particularly bittersweet given his parents’ acute sense of public embarrassment and denial regarding their son’s condition.

But as emotionally effective as the SEN storyline may be, the sections of the film dealing with pressures among elite students fall flat.  It feels as if the viewer needs to know more about the Hong Kong educational system and its shortcomings to understand the film’s criticisms.  Maybe if some of Zoey’s classmates and even Ka Ho’s delinquent friends treated SEN students as easy scapegoats for their own anxieties, an emotional hook between the storylines could have been established.  A small hint of elite education ruthlessness does come when Zoey’s friends make excuses for denying her access to their class notes after Zoey starts falling behind in her school work. At least the viewer can be grateful “Distinction” avoids making Zoey and Ka Ho boyfriend and girlfriend.

The closest “Distinction” actually comes to tying its criticisms of Hong Kong’s school system and people’s treatment of the neurodivergent comes in a small moment at the beginning.  Chui’s career purgatory feels the result of administrators feeling either that SEN teachers are inherently inferior teachers or that the achievement of SEN students aren’t anything comparable to elite students’ successes.

“Distinction” may avoid sentimentality.  But that factor alone doesn’t make the film even above average.

***

Angie Chan’s frequently entertaining documentary “I’ve Got The Blues” started out as the director’s attempt to do a cinematic portrait of her friend Yank Wong.  Primarily known as an abstract painter, Wong also happens to be a writer, photographer, set designer, and musician (among other hats). Despite these avenues of inquiry into this renaissance man’s life, Chan’s film thrives on a noticeable sense that if she wasn’t Wong’s friend, punching out her film subject would be a feasible option.

This sense of directorial aggravation comes from Wong’s on-screen behavior during the film.  He constantly refuses to let Chan film him painting. His answers to Chan’s questions often feel like defensive parries rather than anything revelatory.   Most annoyingly, Wong constantly tries to second-guess the director’s intentions or plans for the film.

Chan becomes a subject in her own film as a result.  Her multi-talented friend’s unwillingness to drop Twitter-sized bits of wisdom or fit into an easily marketable niche calls into question the director’s aims in the film.  Is she just trying to make her friend better known by showing he’s not some strange uncategorizable creative person? Or does she feel seeing himself on film will cause him to reconsider his life’s decisions?  If it’s the latter aim, the film’s artist subject seems happy with his life and evinces few regrets.

Seeing Wong’s paintings and murals as proof of his talent will not convince those left cold by abstract expressionism, the style he works in.  What oddly works better to show the artist’s eye is the footage taken with a GoPro attached to an umbrella. As the world shimmers and changes through these rain-soaked images, the viewer gets a sense of Wong’s ability to look at the essence behind a thing’s exterior form and capture it.  Perhaps that ability explains an enigmatic statement Wong makes about how his relationship to his cat would change if the animal altered its nature.

Wong’s penchant for looking beneath the world’s surfaces possibly accounts for his lack of popularity.  Audience members love it when their artists see deeply, but not necessarily deeply enough to coolly highlight their subject’s defects.  Nor would Wong’s sympathy for the type of political movement guaranteed blockage by the Great Firewall Of China win him admirers with the powerful pro-Mainland China elements in Hong Kong.  Yet what’s precisely refreshing about Wong’s refusal to be satisfied with surfaces is that having a street musician at one of his art openings never feels like noblesse oblige.

Perhaps that’s why conventional measures of artistic success seem a little too shallow for Wong.  This unconventional artist feels contentment with his lot and displays neither ambition nor regret.  Even his much-belated reunion with his half-Chinese half-French daughter lacks any sense of tension.

This cinematic version of a  jazz composition certainly feels different from the usual  paint-by-numbers artist film biography, There’s occasional game-playing between filmmaker and subject.  Chan gives Wong occasional cinematic rope to hopefully put him at ease. Wong treats that figurative rope as an opportunity to experiment with a new medium.  Ultimately, “I’ve Got The Blues” may refer to either Chan’s unhappiness at not making a satisfying cinematic portrait of her friend or Wong’s unhappiness at the filmmaker’s refusal to accept him for who he is.

***

The dramatic stages of rock biopics follow the general path of struggle, success, artistic friction, and dissolution.   Antony Chan’s biopic “House of the Rising Sons” does recount the story of popular late 1970s-early 1980s Cantopop rock band The Wynners.  But there are some factors that allow this often rousingly entertaining tale to break the rock biopic mold. Director Chan was the drummer for The Wynners, so some of the personal details he brings to the film fall into the strange but true category.   The film foregrounds the fates of the Wynners members who didn’t achieve solo break-out success. Finally, The Wynners never formally broke up.

These factors lead to “House of the Rising Sons”’ dramatic dynamic becoming something other than “who will rise to the top and who won’t?”  Instead, the film’s drama comes from the clash between these friends’ desire to rise to the top together versus the reality that artistic talent is never distributed democratically.  Small external temptations to split get dangled such as a hotel suite for singer Alan as opposed to double bed rooms for the other members. The real split happens after the lesser Wynners members realize their desire to stay together comes at the expense of holding their friend back.

Before that point is reached, though, the engaged viewer will wonder just how many of the events depicted actually occurred and how many are comic exaggerations.  Did The Wynners’ previous name actually come from a discarded battle of the bands entry form? Did one future Wynner really get injured by a lobster he hid under his shirt?  And did the band really get introduced to one future member thanks to a coffin crashing through the ceiling of their performance space?

These humorous strange and possibly true events get balanced by some very real hardships some members endure to pursue their dream.  Four Eyes, the Chan character, gets thrown out of the house by his father. One band member leaves the group because of his mother’s death.  Another gets handcuffed to his bed for refusing to choose a more acceptable career. Avoiding street gang membership is certainly a worthy action.  But pursuing rock and roll stardom doesn’t translate to parental acceptance until The Wynners actually become stars.

Viewers hoping for “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”-style debauchery will walk away disappointed by how relatively clean cut “House of the Rising Sons” turns out to be.   Sex is The Wynners’ lead singers leaving their shirts open to show off their bare chests. Drugs get limited to an occasional beer bottle. The rock and roll seen in the film would not cause the Christian rock crowd to blush.

But as mentioned above, “House of the Rising Sons” entertains by not being enslaved to the “success for some” story.  The hardships suffered by the Wynners who don’t break out as individual stars makes the viewer question whether they made the right call with their sacrifice.  Will the Wynners members who do achieve individual stardom treat their time with the band as a career stepping stone deserving only lip service gratitude? The answer presented by Chan may well cause more sensitive viewers to shout like a teenage girl “We love you all” in the theater.

(“Tomorrow Is Another Day” screens at 6:30 PM on September 28, 2018 and 2:30 PM on September 30, 2018.  “Distinction” screens at 4:00 PM on September 29, 2018. “I’ve Got The Blues” screens at 2:00 PM on September 29, 2018.  “House of the Rising Sons” screens at 6:30 PM on September 29, 2018. All screenings take place at the Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento, SF).  For further information about the films and to order advance tickets, go here.)

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