Eason Chan Yik-Shun

Golden Chicken (金雞)

golden chicken

It’s not an ideal time to discover your walls are paper-thin when Sandra Ng, the titular golden chicken – or prostitute in common parlance, breaks out into yet another ecstatic and ostensibly faked moan. I felt it was my neighborly duty to have the mute button on ready in case things got a little too heated, or loud, though in honesty, I should have expected those shrill cries of ecstasy. Still, it’s not quite the Category III sex romp you might be picturing, and Golden Chicken falls on the funny side of the world’s oldest profession. It throws up a few cheap thrills to get the holiday audience laughing but also tries to find its dramatic footing as the film wears on.

The story begins in the present day, which is the tail end of 2002 and just before SARS hitteth the fan. When a power outage traps a broke Kam (Ng) (the Kam or Golden of the title) in an ATM booth with a would-be robber (Eric Tsang), she decides to pass the time by recounting her glorious exploits, and some of the not-so-glorious ones. What follows is a retrospective on twenty odd years of Hong Kong history through the eyes of an unprivileged observer.

A self-described ugly duckling who entered the industry at fifteen, Kam isn’t like the other prostitutes who rely on various physical assets to beguile the customers. Her trick is a spot-on imitation of Jackie Chan’s drunken fist kungfu, which she performs in a sparkling, bodice-hugging dress. As she rides the political and economic changes of the 1980s and 90s, her fortunes rise, then fall, with those of her financially well endowed clients. At one point Kam makes enough money to buy a flat that can accommodate a king sized bed, which is more than I can ever hope for.

But she also remarks on shifts in her line of her work that hint at greater social transformations – the advent of mobile phones and karaoke and more importantly the arrival of Mainland prostitutes. These observations don’t generally serve as a broader social critique; however, the film does slip in some commentary on the indomitable Hong Kong spirit. Ever resourceful Kam never gives up – and never moves up – but keeps on trucking despite the hard times, of which there are many.

Most of her disappointments are in personal relationships, not just with the people she is around but also in their absence. The film is strongest when Kam gets the chance to develop something more lasting than a quick sexual encounter. It’s funny when a bespectacled Eason Chan, the first in a strong line of cameos, shows up as a timid loner and asks Kam to service him in the manner of his ex-girlfriend, but that encounter is more for the novelty of seeing the two actors get frisky in the shower.

The better interactions occur later on, between Kam and nice guy Richard (Felix Wong) and then moody gangster Yeh (Hu Jun). These give both Kam and the story more weight. At one point, she is burdened with an unwanted pregnancy and later, she simply feels like a worn woman. Unfortunately, every time the film begins to settle down, it always recalibrates, bouncing to the next client and/or period in history. It’s easy to lose interest, as I did, when there’s little except the force of Ng’s personality to tie Kam’s life together. The overarching narrative seems to be Kam’s quest to secure her next paycheck, and hopefully a big one. For better, the film doesn’t try to excuse her chosen profession but it also doesn’t do much to explore it, thus lessening the impact of its more emotional moments.

Released: 2002
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Samson Chiu 趙良駿
Writer: Matt Chow 鄒凱光; Samson Chiu 趙良駿
Cast: Sandra Ng 吳君如; Eric Tsang 曾志偉, Andy Lau 劉德華; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Hu Jun 胡軍; Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Alfred Cheung 張堅庭; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Felix Wong 黃日華; Tiffany Lee 李蘢怡; Crystal Tin 田蕊妮
Time: 106 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Hooked on You (每當變幻時)

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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:

Released: 2007
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
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Funeral March (常在我心)

funeral march

Funeral March does death well, better than it does terminal illness, and the movie surprises with its unshrinking approach. There are some overly sentimental moments and the mood music swells a little too heavily at times, but it’s a restrained and affecting film that also showcases Eason Chan as a worthy dramatic actor.

Chan stars as Duan, a funeral director who’s lending a hand to the family business. It’s a quiet role for the singer-actor, who is better known for playing hyperactive characters that explode all over the screen, a sort of yapping jack-in-the-box can’t be stuffed back inside. He takes the opposite approach here, and though the central story revolves around Yee (Charlene Choi), Duan is the one who grounds the film and gives most meaning to life and death.

He is skilled at his job, a sincere mediator of grief who dispenses words of sympathy to the bereaved without making them ding like empty baubles. When Yee, a terminal cancer patient, comes in requesting that he plan her funeral, his instinct is to politely refuse and encourage her to seek a more optimistic course of action. Yee’s inquiry is a sensible one to the Western imagination but a bit jarring for the average Hong Konger. Duan agrees anyway, on the condition that she make some last ditch attempts to get cured. The medicine is not great here, and it’s assumed that a few pills and a round of surgery will do the trick.

Eliding the pitiable suffering parts works in the film’s favor though and puts the focus on Yee and Duan as she tries to repair relationships, mostly with her stepmother (Pauline Yam) and distant father (Kenneth Tsang), and he provides much needed guidance. As their companionship shifts to something deeper, they are again challenged by illness, because cancer is kind of a bitch.

Choi has a heavy burden of portraying a young woman who prematurely faces her own mortality. She elicits some sympathy but hadn’t matured enough as an actress by this point to give Yee the emotional depth she deserves. Yee looks forlorn as she waits for Duan at the death certificate issuing office, but Choi doesn’t invite greater introspection and doesn’t betray any more feelings of anger, confusion, disappointment, or whatever else might be going through her mind.

Chan, by contrast, earns a great deal of empathy by emoting very little. Loner Duan flashes a tortured smile or a pained but compassionate gaze and instantly exposes something of himself that perhaps he’d rather keep hidden. Persistent over-actor Liu Kai-Chi as Duan’s friend similarly holds back and proves twice as effective. The pair, especially in the film’s final act, add to the funereal stillness that permeates the picture. Their performances along with an unshowy death scene help this picture stand out.

“Live Well” (活著多好) by Eason Chan:

“Sleepless World” (全世界失眠) by Eason Chan:

Released: 2001
Prod: Gordon Chan 陳嘉上; Joe Ma 馬偉豪
Dir: Joe Ma 馬偉豪
Writer: Joe Ma 馬偉豪; Chan Kam-Kuen 陳敢權; Sunny Chan 陳詠燊
Cast: Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Pauline Yam 任葆琳; Sheila Chan 陳淑蘭; Yu Sai-Tang 余世騰; Candy Lo 盧巧音; Marco Lok 駱力煒
Time: 97 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015