He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! (新難兄難弟)

he aint heavy hes my father

“One for all and all for one!” is a phrase we don’t hear much of these days, outside of the latest Three Musketeers adaptation, but it was once the go-to slogan of Union Film (translated from the Chinese「人人為我,我為人人.」), the studio that dominated Hong Kong’s post-war cinema and boasted some of the greatest screen talents in the city’s history. Through its varied productions, Union was best known for promoting a sense of community. Their films were populated by people who shared each others’ joys and hardships and who united with a can-do spirit. As for those greedy, self-interested folks who sacrificed the common good just to improve their own lot, there was always a comeuppance, for compassion wins out in the end.

A look around today’s Hong Kong explains why people feel nostalgia for that past. The unceasing pursuit of wealth, the win at all costs mentality, the shameless materialism – it’s not the most humanizing set of values. Although He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! is already 20 years old, it continues to speak to the disillusionment that economic prosperity brings. That Peter Chan and Lee Chi-Ngai firmly tie their work to the Union tradition is doubly satisfying for Hong Kong film history fans like myself.

In general, the plot mirrors those of many older movies and revolves around Cho-Fan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a boisterous young man whose generosity earns him the respect of everyone in his neighborhood. Well, it also revolves around Chor Yuen (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Cho-Fan’s money-loving son. He hops back in time thanks to some Mid-Autumn Festival magic and tries to understand his overly charitable father, with whom he never got along. In addition, he meets his mother, Laura (Carina Lau), a woman willing to sacrifice her considerable inheritance for the man she loves. Family relations are complicated when Chor Yuen and his grandfather, Lord Watson (actual Chor Yuen), conspire to earn a tidy profit off the down-and-out residents of Memory Lane.

There are plenty of familiar scenes and archetypes, which you’ll recognize especially if you’ve seen the classic In the Face of Demolition (危樓春曉), one of the Hong Kong Film Archive’s 100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies. Other tenants include Ah Chuen (Lawrence Cheng) whose gambling addiction threatens to destroy his family and Lynn (Anita Yuen), the good-hearted girl with bad luck who becomes the object of Chor Yuen’s affections. Plus, plenty of minor characters glide in and out, with a young, and poor, Li Ka-Shing (Waise Lee) getting particular attention. However, no matter one’s status or difficulty – and there are plenty, all are drawn by the comfort that they’re in it together. No one ends up abandoned.

Most of the names are cribbed from those of real actors, and some of the parts correspond to the onscreen persona of their namesakes. Lynn, for example, substitutes as Tsi Lo-Lin who often played gentle female roles. Yuen slips perfectly into character. Meanwhile, the broad chested Ng Cho-Fan, Union’s great moralizer is responsible for immortalizing the “All for one…” line in In the Face of Demolition. It’s a scene Ka-Fai, who has a tendency for the dramatic, replicates with gusto. He brings out Cho-Fan’s booming personality in grand fashion and has the lean look of a steady pillar amidst social chaos.

There are a couple father-son combos as well, Lee Hoi-Chuen and Lee Siu-Long being the most famous. Chuen, the elder, was a popular actor whose son, better known as Bruce Lee, also had an acting gig or two. Another Union regular who often played the reticent, learned type was Cheung Wood-Yau, and he appears in the same manner here. The meta moment occurs when his son, director Chor Yuen (who was mentored by the great director Ng Wui), is introduced to Chiu-Wai’s character.

Some might find this endless self-referencing tiresome, but it works as more than a cheap gag. The film lacks the black and white seriousness of its predecessors and instead relies on comedy to achieve a similar effect. By recalling Union’s films so closely, the movie manages to absorb some of those values. He Ain’t Heavy definitely wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s more than the sum of its gimmicks though and earns its emotional payoff. Lau is a delightfully spirited Laura, and it’s easy to see why Cho-Fan is charmed by her. Chor Yuen’s warmth towards his father and Cho-Fan’s love for the man he doesn’t realize is his son also create some truly touching moments. Unlike recent Chinese New Year hits that similarly try to elevate community over the individual, the climax of this movie doesn’t swell with melodrama. And I can’t argue with a film that says we need to look out for each other.

“Tell Laura I Love Her” by Tony Leung and Tony Leung:

Released: 1993
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Claudie Chung 鍾珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Writer: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Carina Lau 劉嘉玲; Anita Yuen 袁詠儀; Lawrence Cheng 鄭丹瑞; Helen Yung 翁杏蘭; Anita Lee 李婉華; Chor Yuen 楚原; Pang Mei-Seung 彭美嫦; Michael Chow 周文健; Waise Lee 李子雄; Lawrence Ng 吳啟華
Time: 98 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014