Elena Kong Mei-Yee

My Name is Fame (我要成名)

my name is fame

Art, it is sometimes said, holds a mirror up to society, and that seems to be the case with My Name is Fame. A film about filmmaking, I suspect it inspired introspection within the Hong Kong entertainment industry, which had long praised and relied on the superior talents of Lau Ching-Wan without rewarding him accordingly. In this movie, he plays a skilled but frequently overlooked actor who coaches a newcomer to stardom while trying to not so much revive a critically successful career as to kickstart one. Lau’s efforts earned him his first ever Hong Kong Film Awards gong.

It’s an honor long overdue, so the irony of this role gives fans like me some sweet satisfaction. His character, Poon Kar-Fai, delivers an acting master class to his protégé, and the audience, and Lau showcases the texture he always brings to his characters. There is something flinty behind his thick, hangdog face, and despite Fai’s emotional exhaustion and stereotypical dip into the bottle, one can sense his simmering passion. Never an actor to back down from the integrity of his craft, Fai knows a deal more about storytelling and performance than some of the people running the show. His unwillingness to compromise as well as his expectation that others commit fully to each job doesn’t earn him many friends.

Since his perpetual state of underemployment leaves him with a lot of time, Fai volunteers to chaperone a fresh actress, Faye (Huo Siyan), contracted under his ex’s (Candy Yu) agency. What starts as a one-off act of kindness, however, gradually develops into something deeper. If this was a Woody Allen film, the middle-aged master would school his much younger, wide-eyed pupil not only in the art of acting but romance as well, with emphasis on the latter. But it’s not, and most of the focus stays on their professional relationship. Faye not only learns to be a better performer but also how to navigate the industry, while the ill-tempered Fai, seeing her approach to the profession that has mostly yielded disappointment, re-evaluates his commitment to it.

Huo is expressive in wonderfully slight ways as her character blossoms into a leading actress. The part requires a certain nuance where Faye is shown filming successive takes of a single scene, and Huo delivers each shot with precision. And while the two leads seem oddly matched in physicality and temperament, they blend effortlessly, both the actors and characters giving and taking until they’ve reached some sort of intellectual and emotional equilibrium (see, this isn’t Woody Allen).

These two very accomplished performances (Huo also received a Best Newcomer nomination) are marred, however, by a problem that plagues recent Hong Kong productions – dubbing. There should just be an understanding that actors will be screened in whatever dialect they’ve acted in or, if consistency is required, that a better effort will be made to find actors who can deliver in the necessary language. After first watching the Cantonese track, I was surprised to hear Faye’s reedy voice replaced by Huo’s deeper, less giggly interpretation when I switched to the Mandarin one. The best solution might be a quick finger on the audio button, but even that won’t do full justice to the performances.

Released: 2006
Prod: Henry Fong 方平; Shan Dongbing 單東炳
Dir: Lawrence Lau 劉國昌
Writer: James Yuen 阮世生; Jessica Fong 方晴;Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan 劉青雲; Huo Siyan 霍思燕; Candy Yu 余安安; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Derek Tsang 曾國祥; Elena Kong 江美儀; Kong Hon 江漢; Leung San 梁珊; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Remus Choi 蔡一傑; Calvin Choi 蔡一智; Edmond So 蘇志威; Niki Chow 周麗琪; Fruit Chan 陳果; Henry Fong 方平; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Lau Dan 劉丹
Time: 94 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

A Simple Life (桃姐)

ASL main Poster5

A Simple Life is a love story, not the effusive kind brimming with laughter or smothered in kisses and certainly not the romantic kind, but one that strips love down to its elemental nature and shows it in its barest form. Its two protagonists appear to keep a distance that’s easy to dismiss; they are, after all, servant and master. But behind their sometimes cold interactions is a deep affection that overcomes their social positions.

Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has served the Leung family for sixty years. Orphaned at a young age, she once again finds herself alone. The only member of the family left to take care of is Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who frequently travels to the Mainland for work (the story is based on the memories of the real-life Roger Lee, the movie’s co-writer). The rest have emigrated to America and rarely return to Hong Kong. Ah Tao walks with a slight shuffle and pauses between staircase landings. She is long past retirement age, though no one seems to have paid attention to that. And so without any relatives or identity beyond that of the Leung family, she stays on as their caretaker.

She has also, without Roger’s realization, become his most enduring relationship. They have a shorthand that plays out wordlessly, mime-like. When he sits down for breakfast, Ah Tao has already set out his meal, sans a bowl of soup which she places moments later into his outreached hand. For someone like myself who was brought up to do her own damn chores, and in adulthood to cook her own meals, there’s a level of discomfort in seeing the two silently glide through the scene. There are no polite nods of acknowledgement or even mumbled “thank yous” to pierce the quiet.

That dynamic quickly shifts, however, when Ah Tao suffers a stroke early on the movie. Roger is at her hospital bedside when she tells him she’s quitting and wants to move into a retirement home. He throws up a few words of protest that do little to dissuade her and then takes up the dry task of finding a suitable residence. He settles on one mostly because it is run by an old friend (Anthony Wong) who cuts him a deal and promises Ah Tao special treatment.

The role reversal reveals the depth of their attachment to one another. Roger is far more attuned to maintaining relationships on a film set than he is in his own home (and gets help from cameos by Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung), and at first, his doting seems obligatory. But despite his characteristic reserve, his feelings for his longtime servant and surrogate mother begin to surface. He and his friends call her up and reminisce with genuine fondness. He teases her about a flirty resident (Paul Chun) only for her to shoot back with questions about his fallow love life.

At the same time, Ah Tao allows herself to assume a different role in Roger’s life. She takes quiet delight when he’s mistaken for her godson, a misunderstanding he doesn’t bother to correct. When they sit huddled on a floor combing through a chest of her belongings, it is a scene of ritual remembrance undertaken by parents and children. They relive shared memories and she passes on those he does not recall. Their closeness is emphasized by a visit from his mother, who brings formality but not familiarity to the dynamic.

The film’s strength lies in director and co-writer Ann Hui’s discipline. She has a poetic eye that shies away from the showy moments of the story and instead focuses on the after-effects. Ah Tao’s heart attack, for example, happens off-screen as does the death of another nursing home resident. Hui’s camera sifts through the landscape and seems to stumble on details almost accidentally, lingering on something or someone just long enough to show curiosity but not too long to gawk at its subject. When Ah Tao first enters the home, she spies a row of residents strapped to their chairs. A woman gumming a sippy cup catches her attention, and Hui politely turns away after a few seconds, capturing Ah Tao’s reaction in the process.

There is also restraint in tone for a setting rich in opportunities for social criticism. Hui allows for points of commentary, such as when Roger attempts to cut through the nursing home’s obfuscation, but this ultimately isn’t a campaign for better treatment of the elderly. It’s a film about love but also about variations on that theme -loneliness and growing old. A Simple Life is neither oppressive in its portrait of old age nor does it try to overcompensate with excessive optimism.

Besides Hui’s direction, the performances also merit praise, and Ip and Lau have been rewarded generously. Ip nabbed the Best Actress gong at the Venice Film Festival for her role and both were lauded at various Asian award ceremonies. I’m not sure how many actresses in Hong Kong would age up to play Ah Tao, but Ip does so unabashedly and flawlessly. It’s not that her mannerisms remind you of your grandmother, though they do, but that she gives tremendous life to a character who’s done her best to hide herself. She throws some wicked side eye besides. Whereas Ip’s performance demands attention, Lau is at his most unobtrusive. Like much of the film, his acting is understated, a single man accustomed to being in the shadows of show business and even his mother’s presence. Elena Kong also deserves recognition as the daughter of a resident who feels the Learian burden of proving her love for her mother. In a movie filled with bursts of poignancy, her subplot might best exposes the pain of love and family.

Released: 2011
Prod: Roger Lee 李恩霖; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Jessica Chan 陳佩華; Nansun Shi 施南生; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達; Stephen Lam 林炳坤
Dir: Ann Hui 許鞍華
Writer: Susan Chan 陳淑賢; Roger Lee 李恩霖
Cast: Deannie Ip 葉德嫻; Andy Lau 劉德華; Qin Hailu 秦海璐; Wang Fuli 王馥荔; Paul Chun 秦沛; Leung Tin 梁天; Hui Siu-Ying 許素瑩; Hui Pik-Kei 許碧姬; Elena Kong 江美儀; Yu Man-Si 余文詩; Jason Chan 陳智燊; Anthony Wong 黃秋生; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Eman Lam 林二汶; Lam Yee-Lok 林以諾; Queenie Chu 朱慧敏; Tsui Hark 徐克; Sammo Hung 洪金寶; Jim Chim 詹瑞文; Francis Mak 麥潤壽; Lawrence Lau 劉國昌; Gung Suet-Fa 宮雪花; Helena Law 羅蘭
Time: 118 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin, English, and Korean
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Crazy N’ the City (神經俠侶)

crazy n the city

Chris, a seasoned beat officer, explains to his new partner on her first day, “Wanchai is a chaotic district. There’s lots of traffic, lots of people, and lots of mentally ill.” Somewhat taken aback, she says that it would be dangerous if they all went crazy, to which he replies, “When I get mad it will be even more dangerous. I can pull out my gun and shoot everyone.”

Lest anyone think that Hong Kong police officers are trigger happy, hypothetical talk about firing a weapon generally stays that way. That’s not always the case when it comes to Hong Kong movies where bullet ballets are a staple. Crazy N’ the City is a vast departure from the dark and highly stylized gangs and guns mayhem though and much of the pedestrian action takes place under sunny skies.

The natural light illuminates the city and characters in a way that softens their harsh edges. Chris (Eason Chan) has grown dejected over the years and is skeptical when rookie Tak Nam (Joey Yung), or Manly, bursts into the department with the enthusiasm a superhero’s sidekick. She attacks her first case, a suspected cat poisoning, with gusto but as the day wears on, finds that her partner has a more apathetic approach to the job.

The movie has a similar unhurried feel, and the camera lingers around the two as they encounter the ordinary and uneventful. Manly helps an old lady push her trolley full of cardboard up a hill guarded by a kid with a water gun. A shop owner suspects a man (Lam Suet) of stealing milk formula. Two teenage girls witness someone exposing himself on the bus. A mentally ill man, Shing (Francis Ng), raids a bra shop. A young woman from the Mainland (Zhang Meng) opens a small massage parlor.

Director James Yuen allows his film to unfold organically. His characters swim in and out of the picture, leaving little splashes and sometimes crashing waves across the narrow streets of Wanchai. It’s a far richer portrait of Hong Kong than we’re used to seeing, and that’s what makes this little film so gratifying. There is a tenderness to the way each character is crafted, the way this tiny square of the city is painted to life. Yuen’s camera shows a closeness that is intimate without being claustrophobic.

People and places brush up against each other, sometimes leaving callouses and sometimes adding polish. Over the course of the movie, Chris blunts Manly’s idealism but in a way that helps her to become a better officer. “We’re policemen not supermen,” he explains. Meanwhile, her dedication gives him license to become more invested in his job. He also gets some help from a serial killer subplot that has a bit of an artificial ring to it, shifting the movie into conventional crime thriller territory.

But Ng, whose character Shing figures prominently in that storyline, gives an emotionally charged performance that makes the generic diversion worth it. He also earns points for sensitively drawing attention to mental illness. His costars, both of whom hold Ph.Ds in histrionics, are affecting as well, giving nuanced, unpretentious portrayals. Yung shows she can act when she’s not trying to blast her way through a scene and handles Manly’s conflicting emotions with well earned sympathy. But Chan is the film’s greatest asset, capturing Chris’s mix of idealism, disappointment, and insecurity from scene one. He is exceptional to watch and betrays his character’s thoughts with the slightest physical details. Hong Kong film would do well with more of this Eason Chan and this kind of movie.

Released: 2005
Prod: Derek Yee 爾冬陞; Henry Fong 方平
Dir: James Yuen 阮世生
Writer: James Yuen 阮世生; Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝; Jessica Fong 方晴
Cast: Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Joey Yung 容祖兒; Francis Ng 吳鎮宇; Zhang Meng 張萌; Kara Hui 惠英紅; Ng Yat-Yin 吳日言; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Waise Lee 李子雄; Chloe Chiu 趙雪妃; Sam Lee 李燦森; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Chin Kar-Lok 錢嘉樂; Ella Koon 官恩娜; Lam Suet 林雪; Crystal Tin 田蕊妮; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Elena Kong 江美儀; Henry Fong 方平; Harashima Daichi 原島大地
Time: 102 min
Lang: Cantonese, some English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014