An early film by director Johnnie To, The Story of My Son is a bleak drama about a family’s descent into poverty that doesn’t so much gnaw at you as it seeks to bludgeon your heart into emotional mush. To and collaborator Wai Ka-Fai pen a script that lurches towards the extreme, offering up any and every device that will earn its characters sympathy. There’s death, financial peril, child abuse, and a feud with the in-laws just for good measure. The film moves at a breathless pace, clocking in at 75 minutes, and leaves you aghast at how everything goes so wrong so quickly.
Fans of late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema will recognize traces of All About Ah Long, released in 1989 and also directed by To and featuring child actor Wong Kwan-Yuen. Both tell about down-and-out fathers struggling to bring up a young son, two in this case, but while the earlier film sought to mend the broken relationship between the boy’s father and mother, played by Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang, this one tosses aboard anything that might give the narrative some emotional ballast.
Nevertheless, To and Wai have a strong story on hand and actors who more than live up to their roles. Damian Lau stars as Leung, the beleaguered father of two young boys who takes on single parenthood after the death of his wife. Lau channels all his character’s frustration, shame, and utter helplessness, and parcels it out as best he can. This is a movie with big emotions, and even when he veers into histrionics, you can understand where it’s coming from. Leung finds that the demands on him are suddenly overwhelming, allowing him little time to grieve or figure out how to parent on his own. These troubles are exacerbated by his mounting debt, and it’s not ten minutes into the movie when he decides to try his luck at the racetrack. That decision, and his reluctance to seek help from his father-in-law, sets him down an unforgiving path that leads directly into the office of thuggish loan sharks.
Leung’s two children are played by Wong and Cheng Pak-Lam, as older son Kin and younger son Hong, respectively. Both are naturals in front of the camera, making their close relationship an easy sell. Wong especially strikes a fine balance between a worried child trying to make sense of all the changes around him while also intuiting the need to fill in for his absent parents. He is really the heart of the film, the titular son who is desperate to love his father and the one who ends up holding the family together. Cheng gamely plays the part of the preschooler, handling his role better than most young actors. Hong sees what is happening but doesn’t understand the gravity of it. He doesn’t know how to hide his fear and confusion, and Cheng is there laying bare a full range of emotions.
As strong as the acting is, however, the filmmakers can’t seem to rein in their dramatic impulses. There are small affecting moments, like when the family downgrades from their very posh standalone house to a cramped flat. Even though there is no room in the moving van, Kin insists on keeping the bike that his mother bought. Leung’s pain is evident as he makes the quick mental calculation about whether or not to bring it. The sheer tragedy of the piece overwhelms these smaller scenes though and ultimately makes them less affecting. The movie ends up not being a harsh, meditative journey but a tumble off a cliff.
Prod: Lau Tin-Chi 劉天賜
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Writer: Johnnie To 杜琪峰, Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Cast: Damian Lau 劉松仁, Wong Kwan-Yuen 黃坤玄, Cheng Pak-Lam 鄭柏林, Lau Siu-Ming 劉兆銘, Ng Man-Tat 吳孟達, Louise Lee 李司祺, Sunny Fang 方剛, Anna Ng 吳浣儀
Time: 75 min
Country: Hong Kong