City of SARS (非典人生)

City of SARS

City of SARS was made in the immediate aftermath of SARS, the respiratory illness that wreaked havoc on Hong Kong in 2003. Over ten years later, the effects of the outbreak are still felt, as evidenced by the city’s hypervigilance over disinfection and hygiene. A friend who visited recently was riding a crowded public bus when he committed the social faux pas of coughing without a mask and later remarked that he had never felt more like a leper.

As a movie, this one doesn’t have much to offer, and it is more interesting as a historical record and cultural byproduct of the period, giving its audience a sense of the chaos and desperation felt at the epidemic’s ground zero. It is framed almost like a war story, placing Hong Kong as a city under seige, only the enemy is an unseen disease with no known cure. The comparison offers similar moral dilemmas, ones that are vastly oversimplified here.

Instead, the audience is treated to clear ideas about heroism during this particular time of social confusion. The movie reads like an inspirational guidebook; this city of SARS, still shaken by the disastrous outbreak, is eagerly commemorating its martyrs and celebrating its fighting spirit. The film uses three short stories to delineate honorable behavior from the shameful and uncharitable.

The first is set in a hospital and involves a doctor and nurse who grapple with the altruistic demands of their profession against simple self-preservation. When the medical staff start succumbing to the disease, Dr. Chan (Patrick Tam) quickly asks for a transfer. His reasons for doing so are selfish and cowardly but equally natural and even dutiful. However, the complexity of “doing the right thing” doesn’t get a fair trial, least of all because his behavior is contrasted with that of Viola (Kristy Yeung), a nurse on her first day on the job. She is so transparently good, saying and doing all the right, and clichéd, things, that it’s hard to see this part of the movie as anything more than a cinematic thank you note to the fine doctors and nurses who helped Hong Kong through the epidemic.

The second act offers a more interesting story and dramatizes the quarantine of the residents of Amoy Gardens, a housing estate hit hardest by the outbreak. The incident may not have broken through the avalanche of news articles, but this episode gives insight into the ordinary lives of residents at the time. Serena Po plays Wendy, whose primary concern is that her lazy boyfriend treat her to a birthday dinner. Before he can find an excuse, she is evacuated to nearby quarters while her apartment complex is decontaminated. When she meets Henry (Edwin Siu), a happy-go-lucky guy amidst disquiet, she begins to get a handle on life. It’s Po who really brightens this piece, and the whole movie. The ex-Cookie turns out to be a far better actress than her baked brethren and gives her little part a lot of nuance.

These positive feelings aren’t carried over into the third act, however, which is a complete departure in tone. Starring Eric Tsang as an obnoxious businessman Boss Hung, it is a cartoonish comedy that feels almost mocking after two relatively somber stories. After the Boss suffers major financial losses due to SARS, he decides to stop the hemorrhaging by offing himself. This way, his sister (Sharon Chan) will avoid responsibility and retain some security. He decides, of course, that contracting SARS will be the most effective way to die, thus trivializing the rest of the movie to this point. The idea itself is curious and might work independently but not butted to the end of this anthology or starring a grating Tsang who hams it up.

Released: 2003
Prod: Ng Kin-Hung 伍健雄
Dir: Steve Cheng 鄭偉文
Writer: Edmond Wong 黃子桓; Mak Ho-Bon 麥浩邦; Kelvin Lee 李浩章
Cast: Patrick Tam 譚耀文; Kristy Yeung 楊恭如; Felix Wong 黃日華; Gabriel Harrison 海俊傑; Thomas Lam 林祖輝; Susan Tse 謝雪心; Wong Wan-Choi 黃允材; Edwin Siu 蕭正楠; Serena Po 蒲西兒; Amanda Lee 李蕙敏; Monica Lo 盧淑儀; Eric Tsang 曾志偉; Sharon Chan 陳敏之; Jerry Lamb 林曉峰; Chin Ka-Lok 錢嘉樂
Time: 95 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014