Kara Hui Ying-Hong

DIVA (DIVA 華麗之後)

diva

When crystal-voiced singing recruit Red (Mag Lam) steps into manager Man’s (Chapman To) office, she compares it, favorably, to a deluxe karaoke room. “Well, today’s Hong Kong singers sing like karaoke amateurs,” he responds. Point. Which is why entertainment conglomerate EEG’s involvement in this project might seem a little curious. At a glance, DIVA is a movie that peels back the glittery façade of Hong Kong’s music industry. That makes the label that most successfully packages fresh-faced teens of dubious talent (see Twins, Boyz, William Chan, Edison Chen, et al) the unlikeliest candidate to turn the cameras on itself.

But lest you think EEG has entered a new era of transparency, it has too much vested in the project to make a meaningful statement on the industry. Besides relative newcomer Lam, the film features Joey Yung, the brightest star in EEG’s galaxy, essentially doubling as herself. Yung plays J, Hong Kong’s top singer who’s suffocating under her overmanaged life. When she gets the chance to go off radar during a performance in the Mainland, she happily slips away. J finds refuge in the arms of a blind masseuse (Hu Ge) and warms up to life beyond the frenzy of superstardom.

In contrast, Red willingly climbs into the rabbit hole when Man plucks her from a dead-end string of nightclub stints and kids’ costume parties. Lam, who’s had her own ups and downs in her short career, thankfully avoids playing her character as the wide-eyed ingenue. Red knows that her powerhouse voice is meant for something bigger and is willing to give the entertainment industry a try, but her boyfriend (Carlos Chan) resents the demands her newfound fame places on their relationship.

It’s something the young couple might have had a serious talk about beforehand, but this movie doesn’t trust its characters enough to work through the fussy details. As a result, conflicts in DIVA end up feeling manufactured in order to make a broader comment on entertainment’s dark side, in that there is one. Passing references to sexual exploitation, for example, get brushed aside once the point has been made (maybe to sidestep EEG’s own allegations of abuse).

And where the movie lacks in script, it fails to make up for with acting. Yung is more charismatic in her concert making-of videos than she is here. Though the film takes pains to present J as a normal person, the actress translates her character’s natural fears and frustrations into a series of disinterested gazes. Her story takes up much of the screen time but never seems to be the film’s focus. Meanwhile, Lam’s part may be less emotionally taxing, but she manages to do more with it. To’s morally loose manager breathes the most life into the film. Despite Man’s many manipulations, the actor still generates good will by the the sheer effectiveness with which Man slides through his schemes and demands.

Absent great depth of character, however, the more unseemly aspects of the industry lack the weight to make this movie an industry exposé, which is probably not what EEG was counting on anyway. There are hints that this might be a graduated version of Diva…Ah Hey!, a 2003 production that also starred EEG hitmakers and commented on the appearance of talent. In the end, that might be what Hong Kong entertainment does best these days. After all, the most memorable part of this film are the excellent visuals. The camera catwalks through the scenes, and this is a movie clearly shot by people who know how to make stars look good.

“Chasing Kites” (追風箏的風箏) by Joey Yung and Mag Lam:

“Are U Okay” by Mag Lam:

“Like Love Songs” (如情歌) by Mag Lam:

Released: 2012
Prod: Chapman To 杜汶澤
Dir: Heiward Mak 麥曦茵
Writer: Heiward Mak 麥曦茵
Cast: Joey Yung 容祖兒; Mag Lam 林欣彤; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Hu Ge 胡歌; Carlos Chan 陳家樂; Bonnie Sin 冼色麗; Fiona Sit 薛凱琪; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; William So 蘇永康; Kara Hui惠英紅; Matt Chow 鄒凱光; Venus Wong 王敏奕
Time: 102 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

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