Waise Lee Chi-Hung

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! (新難兄難弟)

he aint heavy hes my father

“One for all and all for one!” is a phrase we don’t hear much of these days, outside of the latest Three Musketeers adaptation, but it was once the go-to slogan of Union Film (translated from the Chinese「人人為我,我為人人.」), the studio that dominated Hong Kong’s post-war cinema and boasted some of the greatest screen talents in the city’s history. Through its varied productions, Union was best known for promoting a sense of community. Their films were populated by people who shared each others’ joys and hardships and who united with a can-do spirit. As for those greedy, self-interested folks who sacrificed the common good just to improve their own lot, there was always a comeuppance, for compassion wins out in the end.

A look around today’s Hong Kong explains why people feel nostalgia for that past. The unceasing pursuit of wealth, the win at all costs mentality, the shameless materialism – it’s not the most humanizing set of values. Although He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! is already 20 years old, it continues to speak to the disillusionment that economic prosperity brings. That Peter Chan and Lee Chi-Ngai firmly tie their work to the Union tradition is doubly satisfying for Hong Kong film history fans like myself.

In general, the plot mirrors those of many older movies and revolves around Cho-Fan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a boisterous young man whose generosity earns him the respect of everyone in his neighborhood. Well, it also revolves around Chor Yuen (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Cho-Fan’s money-loving son. He hops back in time thanks to some Mid-Autumn Festival magic and tries to understand his overly charitable father, with whom he never got along. In addition, he meets his mother, Laura (Carina Lau), a woman willing to sacrifice her considerable inheritance for the man she loves. Family relations are complicated when Chor Yuen and his grandfather, Lord Watson (actual Chor Yuen), conspire to earn a tidy profit off the down-and-out residents of Memory Lane.

There are plenty of familiar scenes and archetypes, which you’ll recognize especially if you’ve seen the classic In the Face of Demolition (危樓春曉), one of the Hong Kong Film Archive’s 100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies. Other tenants include Ah Chuen (Lawrence Cheng) whose gambling addiction threatens to destroy his family and Lynn (Anita Yuen), the good-hearted girl with bad luck who becomes the object of Chor Yuen’s affections. Plus, plenty of minor characters glide in and out, with a young, and poor, Li Ka-Shing (Waise Lee) getting particular attention. However, no matter one’s status or difficulty – and there are plenty, all are drawn by the comfort that they’re in it together. No one ends up abandoned.

Most of the names are cribbed from those of real actors, and some of the parts correspond to the onscreen persona of their namesakes. Lynn, for example, substitutes as Tsi Lo-Lin who often played gentle female roles. Yuen slips perfectly into character. Meanwhile, the broad chested Ng Cho-Fan, Union’s great moralizer is responsible for immortalizing the “All for one…” line in In the Face of Demolition. It’s a scene Ka-Fai, who has a tendency for the dramatic, replicates with gusto. He brings out Cho-Fan’s booming personality in grand fashion and has the lean look of a steady pillar amidst social chaos.

There are a couple father-son combos as well, Lee Hoi-Chuen and Lee Siu-Long being the most famous. Chuen, the elder, was a popular actor whose son, better known as Bruce Lee, also had an acting gig or two. Another Union regular who often played the reticent, learned type was Cheung Wood-Yau, and he appears in the same manner here. The meta moment occurs when his son, director Chor Yuen (who was mentored by the great director Ng Wui), is introduced to Chiu-Wai’s character.

Some might find this endless self-referencing tiresome, but it works as more than a cheap gag. The film lacks the black and white seriousness of its predecessors and instead relies on comedy to achieve a similar effect. By recalling Union’s films so closely, the movie manages to absorb some of those values. He Ain’t Heavy definitely wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s more than the sum of its gimmicks though and earns its emotional payoff. Lau is a delightfully spirited Laura, and it’s easy to see why Cho-Fan is charmed by her. Chor Yuen’s warmth towards his father and Cho-Fan’s love for the man he doesn’t realize is his son also create some truly touching moments. Unlike recent Chinese New Year hits that similarly try to elevate community over the individual, the climax of this movie doesn’t swell with melodrama. And I can’t argue with a film that says we need to look out for each other.

“Tell Laura I Love Her” by Tony Leung and Tony Leung:

Released: 1993
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Claudie Chung 鍾珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Writer: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Carina Lau 劉嘉玲; Anita Yuen 袁詠儀; Lawrence Cheng 鄭丹瑞; Helen Yung 翁杏蘭; Anita Lee 李婉華; Chor Yuen 楚原; Pang Mei-Seung 彭美嫦; Michael Chow 周文健; Waise Lee 李子雄; Lawrence Ng 吳啟華
Time: 98 min
Lang: Cantonese
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