Category Archives: Hong Kong
二十四城記 (24 City) was the closing film of the HKIFF 2009: half-documentary, half-drama, it tells the story of the demolition of an arms manufacturing factory block in Chengdu – the 420 – and the construction of real estate, the 24 City, in its place. Intercutting interviews of real life workers who spent the better half of their lives working and living on the 420 block, and dramatised interviews with workers played by actors (e.g. Joan Chen), the film brings out the social impact of the rise and fall of industrialisation in communist China. Young comrades travel long distances to work in the big cities, becoming separated from their families; some of them get married and raise their own families on the factory block: it becomes a surrogate home for them, to which they develop a sense of belonging. Real and fictionalised interviews of the generation born in the late ’70s and early ’80s portray them as emancipated, to some extent – they are no longer bound to a life of hunching over machines in grim factories, and can afford to live comfortably and (relatively) freely. A memorable interview was that of a young girl, rollerskating on what appeared to be the roof of a building, so free of worries: even though both her parents work inside the 420, she has never been there. The conclusion of the film is optimistic: the future is bright (or at least brighter) for the kids. The film was shot beautifully – even the manufacturing process and the demolition looked poetic – and the choice of music was pleasantly nostalgic, with ありがとうあなた (Arigatou Anata, or “Thank you“) by 山口百惠 (!), 外面的世界 (“The World Outside") by 齊秦, etc. The real interviews did jar with the dramatised ones though: however skilled the actors were, they could not manage to be as authentic as the bona fide workers (Joan Chen was a bit too glamorous to be convincing as a factory worker, for example). It was a tale worth telling (and hearing) though, a slightly poignant coda for this year’s HKIFF (not counting the Bergman and Antonioni retrospectives to follow!).
Easter weekend came and went: I had a lot of fun though, clam picking at Shui Hau Wan (水口灣) on Lantau Island on Good Friday, followed by a Hong Kong-style barbeque at Silvermine Bay the next day, and on Easter Monday I played scrabble with S, E and K at the latter’s shiny new flat (accompanied by Chet Baker music and some Grieg too). It was some weekend!
Clam picking was very rewarding – there were so many of them on the beach, and we got to eat them afterwards (a store in the nearby Shiu Hau village did the cooking for us). The trick is to scratch the wet sand lightly with a spade, and when it strikes something hard, to use one’s hand to feel around for the hard shell of the clams (hence the Cantonese expression 摸蜆, literally “feeling for clams"). The clams were generally less than 2 inches beneath the surface, so we moved around a lot on the beach to hunt for the shellfish; they ranged from about half an inch across to one that was 2-inch wide. I even managed to pull up a crab (beautifully camouflaged against the sandy beach)!
Barbeque was lovely in the gorgeous sunshine on the Silvermine Bay beach: one revelation was barbequed Gouda cheese, which was like a cheese panini minus the bread!
And here is our glorious Scrabble board, pictured against a vibrantly coloured carpet K bought back from Mexico – I love it! Too bad we didn’t get time to play Monopoly, as we needed to grab a quick bite before watching 24 City at the HKIFF (more later!).
My third week of the HK International Film Festival is filled with slightly more commercial choices than the previous 6 films. Religulous is a documentary directed by Larry Charles, who has previously brought us the notorious Borat movie. Continuing with what he does best – bringing out the ignorance, prejudice and bigotry in ordinary folk – he accompanies comedian Bill Maher on a trek across the world, trying to question religion. Not just the Mormon faith or Scientology, but the mainstream faiths too: Christianity bears a large part of the brunt, but Islam is not spared either. Essentially the ideas are similar to those expressed by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion: both the film and the book shine the light of reason and science on various faiths, and find most of them to be, well, religulous. A highly entertaining film (the mere sight of the Holy Land Experience in Florida, USA – biblical Disneyland, if you will – would make one break into uncontrollable laughter) which presents its arguments effectively without being overly preachy, Religulous is definitely a laudable effort in putting faiths to the test, though I doubt that there will be many converts. The pious will choose to ignore or condemn this as heresy, whereas the doubtful will find nothing new here (other than a good laugh). One is also acutely aware of the danger of sensational documentary editing, a la Michael Moore: interviewees often sound unbelievably arrogant or ignorant, but that could be due to his words being taken out of context of the entire interview, parts of which are edited out. That did not stop me from cracking up pretty much all the way through though!
Hunger, on the other hand, was definitely not aiming for laughs. An account of a period during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, when arrested IRA members went on a hunger strike to protest against the refusal by the Thatcher government to grant them political prisoner status. The audience is confronted with harrowing images of prisoner abuse, intercut with the assassination of prison staff by IRA paramilitaries, and the emaciated body of Bobby Sands, a leader of the hunger strike. These distressing scenes are often painfully long, as if we should ourselves experience the beatings, the bloodshed and the hunger. Only by going through it ourselves can we ask the question: was all this worth it? The British government refused to back down until several prisoners died in the hunger strike, and countless other lives were of course lost in those days. And for what? If only both sides could put aside their stubborness, the human (as well as other) costs could have been much reduced. Director Steve McQueen succeeded in making a discomfiting film, evoking so much with visuals only (you can almost smell the human excrement being smeared on walls), and the cast – led by Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands – should be credited with bringing authenticity to a film that would have failed without it.
青い鳥 (pronounced Aoi tori in Japanese, meaning Blue Bird) again contrasts sharply with the films mentioned above. The story starts with a school that has just recovered from an incident – one of the students attempted suicide (and failed). The young boy mentions in his suicide note that he was bullied by his classmates into shoplifting from his parents’ convenience store, and holds several classmates responsible. Having been made to write confession essays, heavily edited by the teachers, the boy’s classmates were told that they have been forgiven for what they did. Their lives at school was to start afresh – Noguchi, the bullied boy, has since left the school – until the arrival of a substitute teacher, Mr Murauchi (the excellent Abe Hiroshi, or 阿部寬). Murauchi is taciturn, and stutters severely when he speaks, provoking many giggles in class. However, as soon as he arrives, he puts Noguchi’s old desk back in its original position before the incident, and proceeds to greet Noguchi before every lesson. “To live as if nothing has happened is cowardly," says Murauchi. One particular student, Sonobe, is feeling particularly guilty because he joined in with the bullying even though he used to be close to Noguchi. He becomes increasingly disconcerted as Murauchi continues to remind him of his betrayal every day, by greeting the empty seat: one day he asks, “Does disliking someone count as bullying?" To which Murauchi replies, “No, but trampling on someone, noticing the pain in the person and choosing to ignore the pain, that is bullying." One line that particularly moved me was when Murauchi told Sonobe, “Because of what you’ve done to Noguchi, he will never be able to forget about you; even though what you have done cannot be altered, the least you can do is to always remember (what you’ve done)." It brings to mind great historical atrocities – the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the massacre of Chinese people by Japanese troops, all the way up to the Tiananmen Massacre – and the way that people try to rewrite history by, for instance, omitting these events from textbooks. I do hope that the director Nakanishi Kenji (中西健二) and screenwriter Iida Kenzaburo (飯田健三郎) had that in mind: the film is thoughtful but not too preachy, much to their credit. Abe Hiroshi is perfect as the almost angelic Murauchi, and the young Hongō Kanata (本鄉奏多) is precociously good as Sonobe. The film also features a beautiful song, called 鋼の心 (Heart of Steel), sung by まきちゃんぐ – one doesn’t have to understand Japanese to appreciate its sincerity (hear for yourself below). All in all, Aoi Tori is perhaps slightly cliched and proudly mainstream, but a highly enjoyable film nonetheless.
Do Hong Kong politicians/bureaucrats/sycophants think that they can get away with murder these days? Gregory So Kam-Leung, Under Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, was arrogant enough to submit his name card as a proof of his income, when applying to extend his maid’s stay in Hong Kong: idiotic, but forgivable. Then he tops it with this insincere “apology", showing that he meant none of it (or that he is very, very bad at apologising, in which case he’d better learn quickly: he’ll have many more opportunities). Those of you who do not understand Chinese would not even realise he is apologising: he sounds more like he’s lecturing a bunch of wayward kids. He might as well be saying, “Don’t you realise that this is the way we do things? How utterly silly of you indeed." Instead of making that half-arsed attempt, he should just shove his smugness where it belongs.
My second week at the HKIFF continues to be hardcore: three films in two days (Saturday 12:30 pm and 9 pm, followed by a 2:45 pm screening on Sunday)! First up was Yang Yang (陽陽), a Taiwanese production directed by 鄭有傑, a protege of Ang Lee. Indeed, one could find some stylistic similarities between the two directors: the fluid (handheld) camerawork, the sparse dialogue, the emphasis on mood, all remind me of the earlier works of Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet 囍宴 and Eat Drink Man Woman 飲食男安 come to mind). The film tells the tale of a young Eurasian girl, Zhang XinYang (nicknamed Yang Yang), who is finding her breathtaking beauty more a curse than a blessing. She is on good terms with her stepsister, a relatively plain girl, who also happens to be her competitor on the track as well as off: Yang Yang is attracted to her stepsister’s boyfriend, and the feelings are clearly mutual. After much repression, YY gives in to her feelings, sleeping with the young man but swearing that it would only be one-off. The boyfriend duly dumps her stepsister, who inevitably finds out about YY’s betrayal and retaliates by slipping steroids into YY’s drink before a race. YY wins but is disgraced when she tests positive, and, realising what her stepsister did, runs away from home to become a model/actress. What ensues is a series of life lessons for YY: experiencing unrequited love, confronting her latent feelings towards her wayward birth father and learning about the hazards of showbusiness. The story was a bit all over the place, with no real narrative focus: I suppose real life is similarly random, going in multiple directions all at once. One interesting device used is the ending: YY is pictured jogging, for a long time, even up till the end of the credits. It serves as an analogy of life: whatever we experience along the way, we simply need to keep running, just like YY coping with her many setbacks along the way. A nice mood piece overall that is slightly demanding on the viewer, the film owes much to the director as well as the stars (Zhang Rongrong 張榕容 as YY, Zhang Ruijia 張睿家 as the stepsister’s boyfriend, and the actress who plays the stepsister – whose name escapes me…)
Black Ice (or Musta jää) is a darkly comical Finnish film with a plot so convoluted it makes one’s head spin. Leo and Saara are your average middle-class married couple, meaning that the husband is engaged in an affair with a younger woman, who happens to be his student Tuuli (he is a university professor in architecture). When Saara discovers her husband’s betrayal, she moves out of the house and decides to track down Leo’s mistress. Under a false name, she joins a judo class taught by Tuuli, and the two women quickly become friends. At this point it isn’t entirely clear what Saara is plotting – at times she seems rather fond of Tuuli. Her only morally suspect act is borrowing Tuuli’s mobile phone and leaving a death threat on her own voicemail, and then duly informing the police. The turning point in the story is when Leo sees the error of his ways and comes to beg for his wife’s forgiveness, and Saraa decides to give him a second chance. Tuuli, devastated by her breakup with Leo, comes to Saraa for help, but Saraa ignores her calls. Eventually Saraa plucks up the courage to face Tuuli, telling her that she is going back to her estranged husband, only to be hit with shocking news: Tuuli thinks she might be pregnant with Leo’s baby. Desperate to know the truth, Saraa resorts to drugging Tuuli and examining her by, ahem, invading her privacy (Saraa is a gynecologist, naturally). Of course Tuuli has to wake up mid-examination, which, in a most hilarious turn of events, Saraa disguises as a sexual move. A confused Tuuli is at first startled but soon complies, but Saraa suddenly stops her “invasion": she has just confirmed Tuuli’s pregnancy. They then sit awkwardly whilst Tuuli starts drawing a portrait of Saraa, all the while slowly recognising the decor and architecture of the house: she has seen this house before. Soon after it dawns on her that this is Leo’s house, and Saraa is Leo’s wife, Tuuli excuses herself, claiming that she needs to shower. Instead she wanders around and finds the study, where she confirms her suspicions. Meanwhile, Leo returns from a party to find his wife sitting in the living room, with signs that she has company. The jealous husband immediately suspects that it is a boy that Saraa slept with during their separation, and on hearing the sound of an engine, decides to go after the “lover" in his car, although it has started to snow heavily. Having drunk the remainder of the spiked drink that Saraa made, however, Leo crashes his car into a tree. He runs up to Tuuli’s car to confront the “lover", but becomes confused on recognising the driver, who tells him to walk home and drives away. Perhaps because of his drugged state, Leo ends up dying of hypothermia out in the freezing cold. Tuuli, wracked with grief and guilt, plots revenge on Saraa, but an unanticipated tustle with Leo’s sister leads to her tumbling down a flight of stairs and being rushed to emergency surgery. Who else happens to be the duty surgeon but Saraa, who somehow manages to control her emotions and saves both mother and child. Phew: what a storyline! I enjoyed very much the twisted Finnish sense of humour, and the film excels in many ways (particularly the script).
The Baader Meinhof Complex (German title: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) chronicles the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany, starting with their naissance in the 1960s as a group of angry youths who were disillusioned with the establishment and capitalism. Responding to the violence shown by the police and other opposing parties, they took up arms and declared war on the establishment. With Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, amongst others, as its founders, the RAF managed to wreak havoc in Germany over many years, plotting terrorist bombings, kidnaps and bank robberies in the name of the “resistance". Meinhof, before joining the RAF, was a respected journalist: she soon became the voice of the RAF, writing its manifestos and producing quotes like “Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more." Like most movements, the RAF is ultimately undone by its infighting, getting so out of hand in the end that the many figureheads in turn committed suicide in prison. Not exactly lighthearted entertainment (especially for a Sunday afternoon), but the film did teach me a lot about the social and political background of those times (though of course these “fictionalized reality" films need to be taken with a pinch of salt: at least now I am aware of the events and can read about them elsewhere). Enthralling to watch from start to finish, the editing and the music provide a pulse that reflects the anarchist spirit behind the RAF movement, whilst the cast (Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, et al.) also did an impressive job.