Wayne Lai Yiu-Cheung

Confession of Pain (傷城)

confession of pain

Confession of Pain had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the critically and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy, released in the early 2000s, which recalibrated Hong Kong film standards for the new century. This film featured many of the same principals, including directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and writers Mak and Felix Chong as well as star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. So it wouldn’t be overstating things to say that expectations were high, or that the result was a grand disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to follow up on a hit series that went on to become an Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese. Confession of Pain tries to one up the intense cat and mouse game that fueled the creators’ previous effort with another catch-me-if-you-can mystery. Unfortunately, it gets derailed by overambitious plotting. At its most basic, the film is a murder mystery. A wealthy man (Elliot Ngok) is bludgeoned to death along with his manservant (Vincent Wan). Inspector Lau (Leung) tries to solve the crime with the help of his ex-cop friend turned private investigator, Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and bring some closure for the victim’s daughter, Susan (Xu Jinglei), also his wife.

If the murder is unspectacular, the unraveling of this mystery certainly is not. The killer is revealed about twenty minutes into the film, and that’s when things get a little fancy. Instead of the traditional whodunit, the story keeps its audience guessing about motive. In this way, it trends towards a character study. There’s enough stillness in the storytelling and camerawork to allow viewers space to pick apart the murderer and why he or she committed the crime.

At least this is the idea. It’s an intriguing and novel twist to the genre, especially for filmmakers on the vanguard of popular art cinema. The trouble is that absent a motive, it’s hard to give any meaning to the performances. Leung is cool and detached as Lau, effortlessly flinty as an officer who doesn’t blink twice when dispensing justice on a rapist. Leung the charmer is also on display though through tender gestures towards his wife. The actor holds his character’s duality in one consistent performance, allowing a strain of malevolence to underline everything. This shiftiness isn’t confined to a single person, and Susan’s coldness towards her father, embodied by Xu’s chilling stares, also points towards a dark path down which everyone seems to be heading. There are a lot of places to hide one’s secrets. Bong is eager to dig around, but as a recovering alcoholic who blames himself for a personal tragedy, he does little to liven the mood.

Their individual behavior begs explanation and fails to crescendo towards more concrete characterizations. But the plot is structured so that too many hints about the murderer’s intentions would bring things to a hasty conclusion, for the movie and the killer. So until the big reveal snaps quickly into place at the end, things shift into a prolonged limbo. Appearances by Chapman To and Shu Qi are supposed to help, somehow. To plays another investigating officer and brings what he usually brings to a piece – comic relief and bluster, but Shu does precious little as a chipper beer girl and is about as welcome as a squawky clarinet. Her role in particular clashes with the story’s darkness – the title translates to “Hurt City.” On this account at least, the filmmakers succeed; the internal struggles of the characters find little relief in the landscape, their images juxtaposed against long shots of Hong Kong at dawn or midnight when the city is at its loneliest and most abandoned.

Released: 2006
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Writer: Felix Chong 莊文強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Xu Jinglei 徐靜蕾; Shu Qi 舒淇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Elliot Ngok 岳華; Vincent Wan 尹揚明; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥
Time: 110 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

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

Crazy for Pig-Bone in Pot (情迷豬骨煲)

crazy for pig bone in pot

Once again, my stomach has gotten the better of me. I just couldn’t resist a movie about delicious pig-bone in pot, and of course this movie is not at all about pig-bone in pot. Instead, the dish is a tasty euphemism for something else, and the impoverished filmmaking made me wish I’d spent my time indulging my taste buds instead. Probably not even breaking the ranks of a D-movie, this scrappy piece of work is a comedy of errors starring people from TV and movies like Tortured Sex Goddess of Ming Dynasty. With that pedigree, expectations must be adjusted accordingly.

This sex-filled romp stars Edmond So as Ho-Yin, a down and out Hong Konger who makes regular trips to Shenzhen to assert his manhood. It takes about half an hour for anything of consequence to happen, and the narrative ball only starts rolling when he ends up drunk and penniless. He manages to slip into a posh neighborhood, one with actual stand-alone houses, and sneaks in with the intention of robbing the place. Knowing that the owners will be away for the night, he decides to relax a bit before making off with the booty. That’s the moment a pair of lovers decides to interrupt his tranquility, and they do so with some pretty energetic sex.

The two turn out to be Tak-Cheung (Wayne Lai), a gigolo in the service of the mistress of the house, and his lover, Man (Sophie Ngan). Of course, it isn’t long before Cecile (Emily Kwan) returns home, surprised but pleased to find Tak-Cheung waiting for her. Man is hastily chucked into a closet where Ho-Yin is also hiding. As you might guess, Cecile’s husband (Patrick Keung) is not far behind, and a few naughty episodes later, he strides into the house. The unexpected appearance of a full-service masseuse (Kitty Chung) brings the chaos to a head, but the confusion is wrapped up quickly if not cleverly.

The movie is noticeably thin on plot and can only keep its characters running around for so long. To add more bulk, the filmmakers insert pointless fantasy sequences. These compete with poorly shot – and I should add, entirely clean – sex scenes, all of which should be up for some worst of award. I’m also eager to condemn the casual sexism with which Hong Kong men are portrayed here, but I also don’t want to believe anyone is actually watching this movie.

Released: 2001
Prod: Nam Yin 南燕
Dir: Yip Wai-Ying 葉偉英
Writer: Jameson Lam 林華勳
Cast: Edmond So 蘇志威; Emily Kwan 關寶慧; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Sophie Ngan 顏仟汶; Patrick Keung 姜皓文; Kitty Chung 鍾潔怡
Time: 90 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015