Tsui Hark

All About Women (女人不壞)

all about women

All About Women is one wacky, overlong explosion of feminist, romance, fantasy weirdness that you’re either going to appreciate for its eccentricity or hate for its incoherence or, in some cases, both. The brainchild of Tsui Hark and cowriter Kwak Jae-Yong (My Sassy Girl), this two-hour film about three women and the pursuit of love is badly in need of an editor no matter how you approach it. But it also tries to hack out a new course for traditional romcoms, and such vision gets some credit given the recycled junkyard that is Hong Kong cinema these days.

In order to begin to appreciate what Tsui is doing though, you need to plow through the first hour, and this is where the film will lose most of its audience. The three main characters are introduced in a disjointed opening, beginning with scientist Fanfan (Zhou Xun), who suffers from selective sclerosis. This makes her freeze in awkward positions at awkward moments, but it’s the least of her problems. Conforming to stereotypes of socially inept scientists, Fanfan needs serious help when it comes to guys and is working on pheromone stickers that will take the clumsiness out of love. Tanglu (Kitty Zhang), meanwhile, is her opposite. Also embracing a familiar archetype, this sexy, power dressing she-devil renders men useless whenever she marches down the corridor. She closes deals but worries that her beauty is bad for business and that she is not being taken seriously. Last up is Tieling (Guey Lun-Mei), the scrappy, emo rock-chick-poet-boxer of the group. She also has a long-term imaginary relationship with model X (Godfrey Gao) because a) it makes sense later on, and b) who wouldn’t?

It’s a madhouse as these eccentric personalities scramble around their professional and love lives. Increasingly, their paths intersect. Fanfan sets her eyes on a moody rocker (Stephen Fung) whose backside resembles the last subject of her infatuation. He happens to work with Tieling, while she has caught the attention of Tanglu’s meek assistant, Qiyan (Eddie Peng). It isn’t until some of these characters literally crash into each other that the story seems to gain momentum. A mix-up involving Fanfan’s pheromone stickers results in some Midsummer’s Night-like consequences that have the three women questioning what they want out of a partner and of love.

The characters that Tsui and Kwak craft don’t exactly pass the Bechdel test, but they end up being more than the sum of their quirks. This is due in part to the strength of the writing and directing, which eventually move beyond sheer absurdities. The film’s latter half is a lot more challenging than the usual “will they or won’t they” scenario precisely because the love matches have been manipulated by Fanfan’s patches. Each character in her own way is trying to distill love into one formula, whether it be in chemical form or as a romanticized ideal. However, they find that the heart can’t be simplified.

There’s a fair amount of offbeat humor in this, and the actresses get a lot of credit for adding a sympathetic dimension to their parts that is not found in the script. Despite her character’s robotic nature, Zhou is surprisingly funny and at ease with her eccentric role. I was also impressed by Zhang’s ability to turn Tanglu into more than a shrill maneater, and Guey similarly made Tieling’s romantic fantasy seem endearing rather than obsessive.

Considering the movie is called All About Women, it might be expected that the love stories suffer. The male characters get a bit of space to pine or sulk – or in the cases of Gao and Alex Fong Chung-Sun, look flawless and unattainable, but the overall chemistry between the sexes is hit and miss. Much like the rest of the film. Demanding audiences may be more appreciative of the effort and more willing to dig to find the characters, but it retains the feel of an experimental piece, albeit a fresh and fun one, that needs more workshopping.

Released: 2008
Prod: Tsui Hark 徐克; Huang Jianxin 黃建新; Nansun Shi 施南生; Elvis Lee 李程
Dir: Tsui Hark 徐克
Writer: Tsui Hark 徐克; Kwak Jae-Yong 곽재용
Cast: Zhou Xun 周迅; Kitty Zhang 張雨綺; Guey Lun-Mei 桂綸鎂; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Godfrey Gao 高以翔; Shen Chang 沈暢; Eddie Peng 彭于晏
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong/Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

A Simple Life (桃姐)

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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