A Simple Life (Tao jie, Hong Kong, 2011)

Life is other people

Andy Lau, a big action star in East Asia, stars with Deannie Yip with this very effective melodrama. She plays Ah Tao, who’s been a family maid since a teenager and played a role in bringing up Lau’s character. Early in the film she suffers a stroke and insists in being put into a ‘home’ as she can no longer serve the family. Such family maids are, apparently, relatively common in Hong Kong.

Lau plays Roger, a film producer (many of the glitterati of the HK film industry appear as themselves) but finds himself mistaken for an air conditioning engineer and taxi driver. The film suggests that the ‘celebs’ are just the same as everyone else and Roger finds himself increasingly drawn into a friendship with Ah Tao and the previous master-servant dichotomy increasingly blurs. An interesting extra-textual detail is that Yip has often played Lau’s mother.

Ann Hui, a rare female from Hong Kong’s ‘new wave’, direction emphasises the ‘slices of life’ of Ah Tao’s retirement and fleshes out the various characters who inhabit the home. The aging population need care, both physical and social.

I watched the film with a Taiwanese and it was interesting to discuss cultural references. For example, Roger discusses, with his sister, paying for Ah Tao’s funeral before she dies and, later, in western terms, acts in a callous manner. For ‘eastern’ audiences, of course, this behaviour is entirely normal and the only puzzle is westerner’s reaction.

Lau, against type, is great but the film belongs to Deannie Yip’s brilliant performance.

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Mad Detective (Sun taam, Hong Kong, 2007)

Am I shooting the right one?

Am I shooting the right one?

This has an interesting premise: it reverses the idea that cops who get too close to the psyche of criminals become disturbed by having the protagonist being mad in the first place. He can solve cases of ‘a body in a suitcase’ by being put in such a case and thrown down the stairs. So far so bizarre. He can also see others’ inner personalities so the antagonist is seen as being seven different people; resulting in a hilarious scene where our hero is beaten up by seven others.

However, the film certainly soon loses the plot and is tinged by racism – the ‘Indian’ references (South East Asians are the bottom of the racial heap in Hong Kong). It seems as if the producers couldn’t decide whether to be comedic, the laughs soon recede, or emphasise the pathos, our hero pines for the wife who’s left him; he literally sees his missing wife. The notion of divided personalities, and being haunted by ones we love, should have been really interesting. But, overall, the film throws its key merits away into incoherency. The ‘hall of mirrors’ finale, nodding to Welles’ Lady from Shanghai (1948), might have been a brilliant hommage, but by then I didn’t care.

My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2007)

Gorgeous neon bright

Gorgeous neon bright

Wong Kar Wai’s first English-language films had a lukewarm reception and if it’s not quite as good as his Hong Kong movies, this still has some wondrous moments. After the elliptical 2046 (2004) and the frustrating In the Mood for Love (2000), My Blueberry Nights marks a return to the fast food loners of Chungking Express (1994), and its companion film Fallen Angels (1995). From a western perspective, maybe the voice over monologues sound more banal because we hearing the words directly; though that device is sparingly used in this film. I don’t want to concentrate on the negatives, rather Darius Khondji’s fabulous cinematography and Chang Suk-ping (a Wong regular) stunning production design (he also edited). This isn’t to downgrade Wong’s contribution, his authorial voice is always evident.

Khondji was responsible for the fabulous blackness of Se7en (1995), here he revels in the neon bright colours of the sets. The actors are excellent too: Jude Law’s wonky Mancunian accent doesn’t detract from the warmth of his character; Norah Jones’ debut is perfectly pitched, or maybe she’s perfectly cast as the character doesn’t have to do too much. Rachel Weisz smoulders as David Strathearn’s estranged wife and Natalie Portman’s bottle blonde gambler stays the right side of caricature.

The film’s almost as stylised as Francis Coppola’s magnificent One from the Heart (1980); it’s beautiful to look at and, occasionally, also pulls at the  heartstrings.

Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi, Hong Kong)

Can't connect

Can’t Connect

This is probably my favourite Wong Kar-Wai film. I love its portrayal of urban alienation and Chris Doyle’s cinematography is sensational. WIth its companion piece, Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam, Hong Kong, 1994), Fallen Angels offers a vision of Hong Kong as a hyper-real landscape on the brink (of Chinese takeover). Hong Kong, as a place that is defined by business, is the definitive postmodern environment and the surface glitz of the films’ imagery emphasises this aspect of the place. However, the ‘lost’ and ‘longing’ characters, humanise our understanding of late 20th century existence.