Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) kicked off their 2012 Fall Season with Hong Kong Cinema.  The series ran from September 21 to 23 at the Viz.

I saw six of the nine films in the HK series.

Love in the Buff starring Shawn Yue & Miriam Leung; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Nightfall starring Simon Yam & Nick Cheung; directed by Roy Chow Hin-Yeung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook
A Simple Life starring Andy Lau & Deanie Ip; directed by Ann Hui; Cantonese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Love Me Not starring Kenneth Cheng & Afa Lee; directed by Gilitte Pik Chi Leung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012)
The Longest Nite starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai; directed by Patrick Yau; Cantonese with subtitles; (1998)
Made in Hong Kong starring Sam Lee; directed by Fruit Chan; (1997)

The three films I missed were Johnnie To's Romancing in Thin Air, The Great Magician and Comrades, Almost a Love Story with Maggie Cheung.

Commemorating the 15th anniversary of the end of British rule in  Hong Kong (which the SFFS programmers made special effort to note as "the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region"), the series had three films from the transition era:  The Longest Nite, Made in Hong Kong & Comrades, Almost a Love Story.  The Longest Nite was an interesting choice because it was set and filmed in Macau which became a "Special Administrative Region" in 1999.


Love in the Buff is the sequel to Love in a Puff which I saw at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.  Reuniting the director (Pang Ho-cheung) and the two leads (Shawn Yue & Miriam Leung), Love in the Buff discards most of the Love in a Puff backstory.  Jimmy (Yue) and Cherie (Leung) were a HK couple who initially bonded together over their shared nicotine addiction.  In Buff, the two break-up early in the film and separately leave HK (and their smoking habit) for Beijing.  I'm still not sure what "the Buff" in the title referred to.

Whereas Puff  felt as if Jimmy & Cherie belonged together, Buff is more ambiguous.  The couple has already broken so we are left to wonder why second time would result in any other outcome.  Cherie, in particular, wonders the same.  Buff gives more screen time to Jimmy & Cherie's respective partners who are decent people.  Director Park Ho-cheung has his thumb on the scale.  Along the their partners may seem like they a better match, neither couple has the magnetism of Jimmy & Cherie which is largely the result of Yue & Leung's on-screen chemistry.  The audience is not-so-subtly manipulated into hoping for a reunion.

This is a tricky maneuver because Jimmy & Cherie are clearly flawed characters and they are cheating on their significant others which saps away much of the audience's empathy.  It's also clear that the two have an attraction that they won't find with anyone else.  They are like moths drawn to the same flame.  Rather than get bogged down in this aspect of the film, Ho-cheung goes full speed ahead with crass humor and no explanation which is doubly effective because it seem keeping the Jimmy & Cherie's characters.  Cherie, in particular, seem unable to control herself.  Knowing Jimmy is a longshot, she can't resist his text messages and illicit rendezvous.

After overcoming many comedic obstacles, you knew they had to get back together in the end.  Unlike US rom-coms, I thought "happily ever after" was an unlikely outcome.  I got the sense that they could keep making this series  as long as they could come up in with words which rhymed with "puff."  In other words, like some Sisyphean romance myth, Jimmy & Cherie will continue to come together and break apart.

My words shouldn't be misinterpreted as I didn't enjoy the film.  The combination of Yue and Leung on screen and Ho-cheung seems to catch lightning in a bottle.  Buff is a more complex film than Puff in part because we are familiar with the two lead characters.  Ho-cheung took the characters and put them in more complex situation which challenged the audience's preconceived notions.  There was a lot of commentary on modern Chinese culture which played as the backdrop for Jimmy & Cherie's specific actions which I have omitted from my review.  At its essence, Buff (and Puff) are about these two ambivalent characters who walk just this side of likable.  Here's hoping we see Love in a Huff, Love is No Guff or Love Off the Cuff.


A Simple Life is one of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of Hong Kong in the last few years.  Based on producer Roger Lee's relationship with his servant, A Simple Life tells the story of Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), faithful servant to Leung family for her entire adult.  The family has moved overseas but one son, Roger (Andy Lau) remains in the HK.  Ah Tao has cared for Roger since he was born and the two still share the family apartment.  Roger is a film producer whose job requires frequent travel.  A Simple Life has a few cameos and insides jokes at the HK film industry.  The key is the bond between these two.  Roger's was Ah Tao's favorite among his sibling and for reasons left unstated, Roger, a handsome and successful man, has never married and its seems his closest relationship is with Ah Tao.

Ah Tao has a stroke which requires her to be put an assisted living facility.  Despite initial reluctance, Ah Tao eventually settles in and makes friends with the other residents.  Roger visits as often as possible and his being friends with the owner of the facility (Anthony Wong) makes Ah Tao's life a little easier.  The film plays with the notion that Ah Tao will eventually leave the facility and live on her own or with Roger again but it never occurs.

Due to Roger's busy schedule or Ah Tao's tenuous health, Ah Tao spends the rest of the film in the facility.  It's not a prison so she is allowed out and her time with Roger have a extra significance for both of them.  This is strength of A Simple Life.  Rather than going for a cheap, feel-good story where Ah Tao recovers sufficiently to leave the facility and Roger cuts back his work schedule, director Ann Hui presents a more realistic scenario.  In particular, Roger is presented as a decent guy who loves his servant-cum-surrogate mother, but he has a job that's demanding.  On flip side, Ah Tao, always aware she is a servant and not family, would be horrified if Roger made a sacrifice for her.

Most of the film follows Ah Tao as she comes to grips with her situation, develops friendships with the staff and residents of the facility and looks forward to Roger's visits.  During the course of the film, we get a better sense of who Ah Tao is and how much she sacrificed for Roger's family.  Roger, not unaware of Ah Tao's sacrifice, must also cope with her absence and his desire to do more for her.

As Ah Tao's health ebbs away, the film takes a more somber tone until its inevitable conclusion.  A moving film which never overplays its emotional hand, A Simple Life had a profound effect on me.  Reminding me of my late mother, Ah Tao's plight struck a deep chord within me as I could/can easily imagine myself in Roger's position.


Love Me Not was a tremendously creative "film within a film" about a gay man and a lesbian woman.  Putting aside such restrictive ideas on sexual orientation, director Gilitte Pik Chi Leung explores the unconsummated love between the two which is made more nebulous as they pretend to be couple for the sake of their respective families to whom they are still closeted.  Just when the story reaches a conclusion, we realize we been watching a film within film with woman writing & directing a film depicting her relationship with the man...through her subjective lens.  The second half of Love Me Not explore the "real" couple as the reunite in the aftermath of the success of the film based on their time together.  Energetic and playful, Love Me Not is a delightful film.

Made in Hong Kong was one of the 15th anniversary selections.  Representing the uncertainty HKers felt towards their future, Made in Hong Kong captures this disorientation.  Autumn Moon (Sam Lee) is a high school dropout and low level mobster.  He teams up with mentally handicapped behemoth named named Sylvester (Wenbers Li Tung-Chuen) and a fatally ill teenager name Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi) to form  a surrogate family since his father has abandoned him and his relationship with his mother goes from strained to worse.  We see the three of them around HK in vibrant montages full of music, color and non-standard film techniques.  Director Fruit Chan's energetic film eventually gives way to the hopeless and meaningless existence of these young people which must have resonated with young HKers uncertain of what Communist China had in store for their island.  Of all the films I have recently, I would most like to see Made in Hong Kong a second time.

The Longest Nite is a gritty thriller involving a gang war in Macau and a dirty cop who gets in over his head.  Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is the cop and Lau Ching-Wan is a hitman who bumps heads with him. More violent than most films of the genre, The Longest Nite does a nifty pas de deux.  Tony Leung's character starts out as the hunter and the hated but as the film progresses, he becomes the hunted and the audience almost roots for him.  In fact, some in the audience may root him but I wasn't quite won over.  Produced by Johnnie To, The Longest Nite approaches some of his best works.


The only film I did not like was Nightfall, a overly contrived policier about the murder of an opera singer (Michael Wong who overacted his scenes).  Simon Yam plays the police inspector and Nick Cheung (who was great in The Beast Stalker) is an ex-convict who is the prime suspect in the murder. The script was one of those stories where you see the crime but what you see is not what you think you are seeing.  The plot could have reworked to be more effective and I though Yam & Cheung were wasted in a below-average film.  There is an exciting fight sequence on an aerial tram cable car but one scene does not a film make.

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