My Life As McDull

Hong Kong Kong International Film Festival,
March 27 – April 4, 2002

Websites: www.hkiff.org.hk, www.aoihk.org, www.filmarchive.gov.hk

Films seen at the Festival and discussed below.

Along the Railway/Tielu Yanxian (DU Haibin, 2000, China)
The Box/Hezi (Echo Y Windy/YING Weiwei, 2001, China)
Conjugation/Dongci Bianwei (Emily TANG, 2001, Hong Kong/China)
Hidden Half/Nimeh-ye Penhan (Tahmineh MILANI, 2001, Iran)
Hollywood Hong Kong/Xianggang You Ge Helihou (Fruit CHAN, 2001, Hong Kong)
Human Comedy/Renjian Xiju (Hung Hung, 2001, Taiwan)
July Rhapsody/Nanren Sishi (Ann HUI On-Wah, 2001, Hong Kong)
Leaving in Sorrow/Youyou Chouchou De Zou Le (Vincent CHUI, 2001, Hong Kong)
Merry-Go-Round/Chulian Nazhamian (Thomas CHOW Wai-Kwun, 2001, Hong Kong)
My Life As McDull/Maidou Gushi (Toe YUEN Kin-To, 2001)
Rule of the Game/Wadong Ren (HO Ping, 2001, Taiwan)
Runaway Pistol/Zou Hou Qiang (LAM Wah-Chuen, 2002, Hong Kong)
Second Time Around/Wuxian Fuhuo (Jeff LAU Chun-Wai, 2002, Hong Kong)
Shanghai Panic/Women Haipa (Andrew CHENG, 2001, China)
Sun, Moon and Stars/Xingxing, Yueliang, Taiyang (YI Wen, 1961, Hong Kong)
Take Care of My Cat/Goyangyirul bootakhae (JEONG Jae-eun, 2001, South Korea)
Weekend Plot/Miyu Shiqi Xiaoshi (ZHANG Ming, 2001, China)
Wild, Wild Rose/Yemeiguie Zhi Lan (WANG Tianlin, 1960, Hong Kong)

The 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) had a distinct mission: to revitalize the Festival both at home and in the eyes of the international film world after recent problematic years. The HKIFF is now organized by the independent Arts Development Council and no longer under direct bureaucratic control of the Hong Kong government. The programmers who had previously established HKIFF’s reputation but then left have now returned following a hiatus. An industry market, the Hong Kong-Asia Screenings (HAS), ran parallel to the Festival, attracting a more commercially-oriented audience of buyers and distributors.

The HKIFF continues to bring highlights of the previous year’s international films to a local audience, as well as to promote local noteworthy films in the Hong Kong Panorama series. This year’s director in focus retrospective was the veteran Ann HUI On-Wah; the retrospective provided a rare opportunity to see some of her older films on the screen. The Age of Independents series of new Asian film and video, co-programmed with the Hong Kong Arts Centre, continues to be an energetic force within the HKIFF.

A number of the new Chinese-language films at the HKIFF had been at previous festivals such as Berlin and there were fewer premieres than might be expected. The Hong Kong Film Archive programmed a compelling retrospective of Mandarin-language films from the Cathay Studio, which continued for weeks after the HKIFF had ended. The overall Festival atmosphere remains friendly and enjoyable, and as usual it was impossible to see all the films I had intended to fit into my schedule. Therefore the films mentioned in this article are only possible highlights from among a very full programme. I was disappointed to miss the highly praised Chen Mo and Meiting/Chen Mo he Meiting (LIU Hao, 2002). My Life As McDull was the winner of the HKIFF FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) prize for young Asian cinema. The FIPRESCI jury also expressed praise for three other films: Take Care of My Cat, Human Comedy, and Conjugation.

A number of government-approved mainland Chinese films were pulled from the Festival, in what now seems to be an annual event, as a Chinese-government protest of the presence at the Festival of independent films produced in China without official permission. In a new unwelcome twist, the film’s Hong Kong producers withdrew Legend of Zu/Shushan Zhuan (TSUI Hark, 2001) for related reasons.

Age of Independents

The Age of Independents (AOI) program offered a wide selection of new Asian films and videos, and made a point to bring the directors to Hong Kong for HKIFF. The presence of the filmmakers was definitely welcomed by the local audiences. The three additional feature films praised by the FIPRESCI jury were all included in the AOI series, and have appeared at other international festivals. AOI also brought to HKIFF the two major independent Chinese films of 2001, Seafood/Haixian (ZHU Wen, 2001) and The Orphan of Anyang/Anyang de guer (WANG Chao, 2001), which I reviewed in the 2001 Vancouver International Film Festival report.

Conjugation is a polished drama set in the aftermath of the June 4th 1989 incident (Tianamen Square. A young couple are trying to set up house together, without official permission. Everyone in their circle is heavily affected by the protests and the aftermath – one person is still missing – and they deal with it in different ways: throwing away an academic career for a small business, leaving for studies in the USA, rebelling at a factory. The film incorporates a great deal of poetry from the contemporary writer Haizi (who killed himself in March 1989). This setting is closely linked to the director’s own experience, and I will watch for her future works.

Take Care of My Cat

Take Care of My Cat is also a first feature from a young woman director. The film follows a kitten as it passes from one to another of a group of high school classmates. The film is set perhaps two years after the classmates’ high school graduation in their hometown, Inchon, the port city near Seoul. Self-centred popular Haejoo has some growing up to do, and has to deal with being termed a “value deficit” at her low-level office job. Unemployed Jiyoung, who lives with her elderly grandparents, as well as tomboy Taehee (played by Bae Doo-na from Barking Dogs Never Bite/ Flandersui gae, BONG Joon-ho, 2000), who is stuck in an awful family, have the most depth of character. The extreme use of mobile phones (text, voice, music, graphics) in this film is perhaps unparalleled elsewhere and successfully evokes a youthful air. Many of the girls’ problems are caused by the current depressed economic climate, and we are shown a variety of social issues that result. Luckily this film is not as cute as might be feared.

Human Comedy has a complex structure that may be a bit much for some viewers. Hung Hung’s theatre experience is definitely in the foreground, as segments of the film include rehearsals or performances of the play White Tide (by the late theatre director Tian Chi-yuan), a retelling of the White Snake tale. Another thread running through the film is the moral warnings found in the ancient Book of 24 Filial Pieties. Taipei is a bustling, cold, urban environment in this film, a place where it is not easy to make lasting connections with people. My favourite segment is the first, featuring a shoe salesgirl who is fixated on Tony LEUNG Chiu-Wai. (The surprising thing is that she likes his singing as well as his acting!) The remaining segments intertwine as we track other young people through the Taipei streets, going house-hunting, going to the hospital, avoiding a typhoon or attending a funeral. Perhaps Hung Hung’s future works will not try to pack quite so much into just one film. He, like most of the AOI directors, should continue to create works worth watching.

Weekend Plot is the long-awaited second film by ZHANG Ming, director of In Expectation/ Wu shan yun yu (1996). Also set in his native Wushan, an area threatened by the Three Gorges dam project, this film follows a holiday weekend reunion of high school classmates. Some have moved on to big cities and big-city concerns, while one remains in the same small town, works as a policeman, and is also the first to marry and have a child. There may perhaps be more ugly bathing suits in this film than any other Mainland film to date. The male-female relationships are not necessarily more successful than the bathing suits. The landscape, with the huge river and very striking mountains, plays an important role in the film and the way it is photographed evokes traditional Chinese paintings. If the film fits into one genre, it is closest to a mystery, with at least one impending crisis, and the ending is left extremely open. This is an intriguing film which discusses the specific changes in China over recent years as well as interpersonal relationships, which could be an issue anywhere in the world. I hope Zhang will be permitted to continue making his idiosyncratic variety of art film in the future.

Leaving in Sorrow, which was also at the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Toronto in November 2001, is a first feature (on digital video) worth commending. All the protagonists of the three stories have left or are considering leaving Hong Kong, around the time of the 1997 handover. Two of the three stories contain strong acting: from Tony HO Wah-chiu as a pastor much more kind-hearted and generous than his congregation, Ivy HO (not the screenwriter Ivy HO/On-Sai) as the pastor’s real estate agent wife, intent on moving to the USA, and Crystal LUI as a magazine editor dealing with the aftermath of her June 4/Tianamen Square experiences. The film gives a sense of the issues Hong Kong people face – economic downturns, emigration/immigration, real estate speculation, as well as political topics – and offers quite realistic Hong Kong characters. As any discussion of politics is so rarely featured in the foreground of any Hong Kong film, this really makes a difference to Leaving in Sorrow.

The video documentary Along the Railway made a strong impression on me. Around the Spring Festival 2000 Du Haibin was able to connect with a loose-knit group of homeless boys and young men living behind the Baoji train station, in Shaanxi province, and convince them to let him film them. Each one brought their own traumatic story from all over China – lost IDs, lost jobs, substance abuse, illiteracy, abusive parents, mental illness, poverty, violent crime, uncaring teachers – which may be common to homeless youth anywhere in the world. Du seems to turn his camera on and let the youths unfurl their stories, while trains zoom by in the background. I would not say a viewer must sympathize with the interviewees, but the documentary provides a rare glimpse of real suffering in modern China.

Two digital videos left a much less favourable impression on me: the documentary The Box and the feature Shanghai Panic. Both were first films, and suffered in comparison to other HKIFF films. The Box included two kinds of footage: interviews with a young (and topless) lesbian couple and cinema vérité of the couple’s domestic life. It practically felt like we spent a week with them ourselves, and unfortunately they were boring. Shanghai Panic was adapted by the writer Mian Mian from her banned semi-autobiographical novel, Candy, and she also acts in a major role in the film. If you have not had enough of young hipsters in your own town partying at all-night raves and trying any kind of intoxicating substance available, then this may be the film for you. I was not convinced.

Hong Kong Panorama

The Hong Kong Panorama section selects a number of important or noteworthy recent Hong Kong films from the past year. This year eleven films were chosen. As noted above, Legend of Zu was withdrawn by the film’s producers. The ten remaining films ranged from super award-winning comedy blockbuster Shaolin Soccer/Shaolin Zuqiu (Stephen CHOW Sing-Chi, 2001) to the extremely caustic political drama From the Queen to the Chief Executive/Denghou Dong Jianhua Faluo (Herman YAU Lai-To, 2001), and a couple of Johnnie TO Kei-Fung commercial action films (Fulltime Killer/Quanzhi Shashou [2001] and Running Out of Time 2/Anzhan 2 [2001]) for good measure. I found the gangster satire You Shoot, I Shoot/Maixiong Pairen (Edmond PANG Ho-Cheung, 2001) and the well-filmed Beijing-set gay love story Lan Yu (Stanley KWAN Kam-Pang, 2001) worthwhile inclusions. All Panorama films are widely available on VCD and DVD.

Merry-go-Round, which was written by the phenomenon GC Goo Bi and based on one of her radio-plays, is a teen love story with a difference – it is not at all cloying or saccharine. Teenage sisters (Taiwanese pop-singer Rainie YANG Cheng-Lin and the very charismatic Zeny KWOK, last seen in Glass Tears/Boli Shaonu, Carol LAI Miu-Suet, 2001) run into the son of the owner of the newest neighbourhood noodle shop (Lawrence CHOU, featured in the GC Goo Bi segment of Heroes in Love/Lian’ai Qiyi, 2001), and young love unfolds. The kinds of Hong Kong teen pop culture highlighted in this film seem very authentic, especially the fascination with mobile phones, dieting and Japan. I particularly enjoyed a cultural trivia game show segment, hosted by the effervescent media personality Missy Hyperbitch. I imagine that GC Goo Bi’s terrific ear for dialogue is vital in the original Cantonese. As in real life, things go wrong in this film and love suffers. Very enjoyable.

My Life As McDull is a charming first feature, adapted from a comic book, and nominally aimed at children. It may be the only Category I (suitable for all ages) film many festivalgoers will see. Animated features are not common in Hong Kong, but this is very successful, even for those viewers predisposed against animation. McDull’s character is a kindergarten-age piglet, who is not handsome or clever, and runs into some obstacles as he goes about his daily life. The songs and music in My Life as McDull are unusually solid, and often based on Western classical music. The animators have an intriguing method of showing swooping motion over Hong Kong’s buildings, the viewer seems to fly over the apartment and office towers. The voice work is also engaging. Some reviewers may see McDull as impossibly local, but that local flavour is a great reason to try this film even if the Cantonese accent jokes cannot be translated in the subtitles. The HKIFF FIPRESCI award may deservedly bring this film to more international festivals than previously possible.

Second Time Around

Second Time Around was overlooked at the box office and local awards, despite the stars Ekin CHENG Yee-Kin and Cecilia CHEUNG Pak-Chi. Perhaps the Las Vegas setting was disorienting, seemingly disconnected from daily life in Hong Kong. While watching the film, my first reaction was disappointment mixed with awe at Ekin’s outlandish costumes (his pop concert garb might be tamer). In retrospect I am willing to be slightly more charitable, despite the strange basic concept. Ekin Cheng, whose acting skills are debatable at the best of times, plays a ‘small potato’ casino dealer who wants to reach the big time, while Cecilia Cheung’s somewhat underplayed role is that of police detective. Yes, their paths cross and romance ensues, but there are multiple Ekins and Cecilias roaming around in looping time, which necessarily leads to all sorts of raucous confusion. Jeff Lau Chun-Wai, whose filmography is quite memorable, is usually a director who is worth checking out, but this film may not be for everyone.

The Hong Kong Panorama section also includes a local Director in Focus retrospective, which as mentioned above, was devoted this year to Ann HUI On-Wah, and I was quite thrilled to see some of her earlier works. Boat People/Touben Nuhai (1982), Love in a Fallen City/Qingcheng zhi lian (1984) and Song of the Exile/ketu Qiuhen (1990) were moving and compelling, with very strong actors. Boat People was suppressed in Hong Kong after release, due to its political content, and screenings are still rare. Her most recent film, July Rhapsody/Nanren Sishi (2001), was unusual in a season of particularly youth-oriented films, as it had a mature audience in mind. The main characters, a long-time married couple, are subtly played. Jacky CHEUNG Hok-Yau plays a high school Chinese literature teacher, and Anita MUI Yim-Fong plays his wife. His life is turned upside-down by a precocious young girl student (Karena LAM Ka Yan). Karena Lam appeared in three films playing commercially in Hong Kong in April and just won the Hong Kong Film Award Best Newcomer Award for July Rhapsody. There are a number of flashbacks to the married couple’s youth. The plot does not unfold in a completely expected or exploitative manner, and I found the ending especially surprising. The incorporation of literature and poetry into the film was a worthwhile addition. The twelve films in the retrospective clearly stem from an intelligent and thoughtful director, who still has a long career ahead of her.

Recent Works

Rule of the Game is a kind of murder mystery, but the audience must be patient to find out who is the victim (or victims). The film loops around in time and characters in different plot threads overlap. It is easy to miss clues that one only realizes later on are important. At first this film could be mistaken for one of many Taiwanese films about losers living in Taipei who are accidentally drawn into crime. Rule of the Game is wittier than that. Gradually we determine that a number of crimes have been contemplated and carried out, with a variety of gruesome results. The characters are slightly unpredictable. I found myself enjoying this film, despite the blood splattering, probably due to the intriguing structure.

Runaway Pistol had the opposite effect on me. It is a cruelly violent film, in which I could find few redeeming aspects. The film follows, and is occasionally narrated by, a gun that travels through various crises and social strata. At first Runaway Pistol seemed merely misogynistic, which is unfortunately not unusual in films from any country, but this film loathes equally men, women and children so maybe nihilistic is a more appropriate description. There are some interesting film industry cameos, and the film seems well put-together, but I really wondered what the director’s goal was in creating it. Avoid.

Hidden Half is proving to be an extremely controversial film in its native Iran, as the director was jailed in 2001 (and now released on bail awaiting trial) as a result of making it. Ms Milani was charged with misusing the arts in support of counter-revolutionary and armed opposition groups, potentially a capital offence, and the charges have not been dropped to date. The film, though, has been approved and exhibited within Iran. The Hidden Half contains many flashbacks, even layers of multiple flashbacks, between Tehran in the present-day and immediately after the Islamic Revolution. A husband on a business trip reads a long diary-like letter from his wife, in which she reveals her past in a student revolutionary women’s group and her implied affair with a married man (any scenes of a physical love affair were probably impossible to include). The heavy reliance on flashbacks may grate on some viewers’ nerves. I appreciated the glimpse of post-revolutionary Tehran women provided here and hope the act of making this film does not have any further personal costs for the director.

Hollywood Hong Kong

HKIFF 2002 included some of the key Asian films of the past year, such as TSAI Ming-Liang’s terrific What Time is it There?/Ni Neibian Jidian (Taiwan/France, 2001) and Shunji IWAI’s enigmatic All About Lily Chou-Chou (Japan, 2001). The opening film was Hollywood Hong Kong/Xianggang You Ge Helihou, directed by the increasingly interesting Fruit CHAN (2001, Hong Kong). This expertly crafted film investigates the hidden alleyways of a now-demolished shantytown, and also the recesses of the minds of a family of barbecue pork butchers, as butcher father and sons run into a very unusual Mainland prostitute (ZHOU Xun, also the female lead in Suzhou River/Suzhou He [YE Lou, China, 2000]). Obviously I am in the pro-Fruit Chan camp, although apparently he is not for all viewers. Hollywood Hong Kong has much broader humour than Chan’s previous films, hopefully not entirely at the expense of the extra-large-sized butcher family. Missing forearms also play a role here. Fruit Chan’s portrayal of Hong Kong seems unlikely to support the Hong Kong of tourist brochures, but it is much more accurate.

The Archive

The Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) series of classic Mandarin films, “Back to Dreamland”, presented during the HKIFF, was especially valuable for anyone without previous easy access to these films. The HKFA screenings now operate year-round, and some rare films were not scheduled during the HKIFF. The Cathay studio started operating as MP & GI in Hong Kong in 1957, and produced roughly 250 films in the following decade. This chance to see the actresses Grace CHANG/GE Lan, Jeanette LIN Cui or Lucilla YOU Min and actors CHANG Yang, Peter CHEN Hou or Roy CHIAO was not to be missed, with or without subtitles. It is a pity that all the HKFA films could not have subtitles (especially during HKIFF), as in an ideal world they would be able to offer English subtitles for guests without Chinese skills and Chinese subtitles for Cantonese speakers without Mandarin skills. These films often have similar casts, with character actors from amongst the studio group of actors. You can even start to recognize the furniture on the sets. The views of old Hong Kong, both daily life and the geography of the city, add another layer to the film-watching experience. These films have polished production values and were hugely popular in their own time, providing a window to the Hong Kong of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The two directors whose films I saw most often were WANG Tianlin/WONG Tin-Lam (father of modern-era, popular, low-brow, commercial film director WONG Jing) and YI Wen.

Wild, Wild Rose by WANG Tianlin is a great film experience. Starring the dynamic Grace Chang, it is in one sense a reworking of the Carmen story. The Grace Chang character is a nightclub singer who generally chews up the men infatuated with her. The musical segments are really stunning – in one number she rises from below the floor for a flamenco-style tap dance! In this film she spits, drinks alcohol and has her dress split up to her navel. (Very few modern-day actresses could successfully recreate this role, perhaps only the singer/actress Anita Mui Yim-Fong.) The ill-destined male lead, Chang Yang, plays out the typical path of his characters – he makes generally wrong decisions and is a great example of what Stephen Teo calls the “weak romantic hero”(1). I saw this black and white film near the beginning of the HKIFF, and in fact very few of the modern films I saw could match its intensity.

Sun, Moon and Stars by YI Wen is a huge-scale technicolour drama with settings across China, adapted from a popular novel. Our male lead, again Chang Yang, can not make up his mind between three beautiful women: the kind and well brought-up cousin Grace Chang (Moon), the tough nationalist soldier Julie YE Feng (Sun) and the poor sickly orphan Lucilla YOU Min (Star). The women work together to solve his problems, and keep sacrificing themselves for him much longer than seems reasonable. The faces of the three women often filled the giant screen, tremendous!

In conclusion

Between the Film Archive and Age of Independents, there was not much room for me to see any more films. A visit to the HKIFF becomes a crash course in whatever branch of Chinese and Asian film one cares to investigate. The film and expert resources are waiting there to be mined. Of course, many guests were in Hong Kong to stock up on audio-video items hard to find at home, or at rock-bottom prices.

For film professionals and enthusiasts with an interest in Chinese and Asian film, the HKIFF will continue to be an important stop on the festival circuit, whether or not it can match Pusan’s high profile. The new HKIFF management seems on the right path to stabilize the Festival’s previously precarious position with the Hong Kong bureaucracy, and to inject increasing amounts of professionalism into the Festival administration. The 27th edition, which will have a full year’s preparation, should be even more impressive.

Endnotes

  1. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, 1997, p. 76

About The Author

Lisa Roosen-Runge lives in Toronto, Canada, where there are no longer any remaining first-run Hong Kong cinemas. She spends her spare time trying to keep up on current Asian films and also studying Cantonese at a snail's pace.