It’s been about a week since July 1, officially HKSAR Establishment Day in this Special Administrative Region though more popularly Protest Day. It’s customary for citizens to air all manners of grievances against the government, but this year, the eighteenth under Chinese rule, there was little to mark the occasion. While protesters still numbered in the tens of thousands, many stayed away having made their point pretty clear during the months-long Occupy Movement. The Central Government also tempered their approach, wanting the day to pass with as little incident as possible.
It’s a remarkable change from the fanfare that greeted the tenth anniversary of the Handover in 2007 when there was a distinctly celebratory air to the proceedings. In addition to the slate of cultural events on offer, Hong Kong pop stars also got in on the act with an uplifting theme song about their glorious territory. It seemed for a short while that this crazy “one country, two systems” plan might just work after all. We’d weathered the Asian economic crisis and pulled through SARS, new parents still had no problem buying milk powder, and retailers rather enjoyed the boost from Mainland tourism. Hell, people even migrated back to Hong Kong from their American and Commonwealth safe havens. Maybe this could all work out.
Maybe. That’s the overriding feeling of this Johnnie To produced, Law Wing-Cheong directed feature, very much a product of 10th anniversary, calm before the storm sentiment. The film follows Mui (Miriam Yeung) and Fishman (Eason Chan) in the years after the Handover and is a love story but not the conventional kind. Mui and Fishman spend much of their time apart, their feelings for each other and their timing never quite in sync, but the real and deeper romance is between the audience and a changing Hong Kong. The writers overlay one with the other and end up with a script that tells of love and heartache on a personal and societal level.
The tale spans a decade and begins in 1997 when Mui and Fishman meet at the Fortune Market. They are competing fishmongers, and he’s none too pleased that her cheerful personality and strong work ethic have won over customers and hawkers. The wet market is his natural milieu, and Fishman’s crusty demeanor matches its charged, sometimes aggressive atmosphere. He doesn’t seem to mind that he’s up to his elbows in fish guts every day, and anyway, his best friend’s a butcher (Huang Bo).
Mui, on the other hand, is not sure where she belongs, but she knows it’s not Fortune Market. At twenty-seven years, she makes it her goal to leave the stall and establish herself in a better class of position. Mui is aspirational but realistic; she simply wants to find a respectable and rewarding job, and husband to match, by the age of thirty. But for the time being, she agrees to help out her good-for-nothing dad (Stanley Fung) pay off his debts to Mr. Right (David Lo), working at his stall by day and selling congee by night.
Hooked on You’s first fifteen minutes set Mui and Fishman up for a bit of an opposites attract dynamic and steers the story in the way of a goofy romcom, which it is not. It takes some time for the film to find its footing and eventually does when a real crisis hits Fortune Market – the arrival of a flashy chain grocery store. With its plastic wrapped products and credit card-ready check out terminals, the supermarket threatens the livelihoods of the hawkers, and they scramble to find new ways to retain customers.
Their strategies are laughable and produce humorous results, but it’s increasingly clear that there’s a larger narrative at work. As the years roll by, Mui and Fishman are pressured by social changes and events, such as the financial crisis and SARS, all of which are presented episodically. Sometimes these are given too cursory a treatment and the situation itself becomes secondary, but the movie is really grounded in the two main characters and their tenuous, long-term relationship.
Fishman, sensitively played by Chan, is the resolute Hong Konger. Stubborn and plain wrong on numerous occasions, he makes his decisions without compromise. Perhaps like the city itself, he hangs on just a little too long, and his attachments to Fortune Market and Mui suffer accordingly. Mui likewise shows a side of Hong Kong, but her strengths and flaws paint a different picture of the city and her character. Unlike Fishman, she sees opportunity in change and often takes chances when they come, whether about her career, her finances, or her love life. Some decisions leave her better off and some do not, but she is always working to get one step higher. Like Chan, Yeung is a fine actress when she tones down her comedic volume, and in her hands, Mui grows into an admirable woman who can own her mistakes as well as she can take pride in her successes.
The movie is especially moving when it lets the actors guide the camera, and its most poignant moments are when the two characters struggle to fit into the changing landscape. But the final sequence, which contrives emotions and is out of tune with the realism of the plot, doesn’t ring as true. Nevertheless, it elicits some sort of pride in the indomitable Hong Kong spirit and leaves viewers with a sense of cautious optimism about the city as an SAR – something that is difficult to appreciate nearly two decades on from the Handover. After a tumultuous few years and more uncertainty to come, the short period of reunification bliss now seems like something out of the movies. If in 2007 Hooked on You asked Hong Kongers to let go of the past and have a little faith in the future, in 2015, it mostly makes us nostalgic for more hopeful times.
“Hooked On You” (每當孌幻時) by Miriam Yeung:
Prod: Andrew Fung 馮志強
Dir: Law Wing-Cheung 羅永昌
Writer: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Cast: Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Huang Bo 黃渤; Stanley Fung 馮淬帆; William Feng 馮紹峰; Kwan Kin 關鍵; Tam Yan-Mei 覃恩美; Farini Cheung 張睿羚; Jolie Chan 陳苑淇; David Lo 盧大偉; Ai Wai 艾威; Wong Yau-Nam 黃又南; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Gordon Lam 林家棟; Raymond Wong 黃浩然; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Four Tse 謝魯駟; Stephanie Cheng 鄭融; Carl Ng 吳嘉龍; Marie Zhuge 諸葛梓岐
Time: 97 min
Country: Hong Kong