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Related Article: Mass-Produced Alienation: Disposable Lives in Made in Hong Kong, featured in Issue No.24 of Senses of Cinema.


Xianggang zhizao, 1997
[Made in Hong Kong]

LeeAutumn Moon (Sam Lee) describes with resigned disaffection his aimless life in the urban jungle of Hong Kong: playing street basketball with other underemployed, high school dropouts in the city park; collecting loansharking debts for a mob boss named Big Brother Wing (Chan Sang); coming to the rescue of a defenseless, mentally disabled friend named Sylvester (Wenbers Li Tung-Chuen); engaging in ever-escalating acts of aggression against members of rival triads. While making their collection rounds at a high-rise tenement complex, Moon and Sylvester pay a visit to a debtor named Mrs. Lam (Carol Lam Kit-Fong) who, in turn, quickly chases away the inexperienced and unthreatening hired thugs when Sylvester suffers an inopportune nosebleed. Encountering Mrs. Lam's beautiful and confident daughter, Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi) from a distance, Moon is captivated by the attractive young woman and begins to visit under the pretense of debt collection. Like Moon, Ping's father has also abandoned his family, leaving them in financial distress and at the mercy of gangsters eager to exploit their indebtedness to recruit their adult children into an inescapable life of crime. In a gallant, albeit misguided attempt to show affection and concern for Ping, Moon assumes responsibility for Mr. Lam's debt, and sells his mother's (Doris Chow Yan-Wah) television set to raise money, causing additional friction to their already strained relationship. One day, while Sylvester is carrying the trash out to the curb, he witnesses a young woman leap from an adjacent rooftop to her death. Sylvester runs to the scene and, in a moment of panic, retrieves two, blood soaked letters that landed near her body. Deriving from the letters that the young woman who committed suicide was named Susan (Amy Tam Ka-Chuen), Moon begins to be haunted by the senselessness and impersonal nature of her death, and with the help of Sylvester and Ping, decides to deliver the letters to their intended recipients.

Fruit Chan presents an intelligently conceived, vibrant, and compassionate portrait of marginalization, alienation, and disconnection in
Made in Hong Kong. Shot as a low budget film and using a cast of nonprofessional actors, Chan uses bold and resourceful camerawork, freeze frame and speed altered shots (a clever solution to the problematic use of odd length, reclaimed scrap film stock), and exploits the natural, frenetic rhythm of Hong Kong city life to create a sense of aimlessness and disorientation that reflect the nihilism and despair of the protagonists. The incorporation of highly stylized colors within the characters' environment further evokes the pervasive misery of their situation: the somber, blue hued shot of Susan on the rooftop overlooking a spare and featureless cement church cross; the green hues of Moon and Ping's dimly lit apartment hallways; the austere blue hues of an upper floor apartment staircase, as Moon discovers the existence of his father's mistress and new family. Ironically, a lighthearted and poignant scene of the three friends casually searching for Susan's grave amidst a vast hillside cemetery summarily defines the nature of their hopeless existence - the unanswered cries of lost youth in search of identity and validation against the silence and apathy of a resigned society rooted in human commodification and disposability.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Hui nin yin fa dak bit doh, 1998
[The Longest Summer]

HoA public broadcast on March 31, 1997 officially announces the disbanding of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps - the cadre of Chinese soldiers serving in the British garrison on the island - as images of regimental exercises leading to the final lowering of the sovereign flag cuts to a shot of a young boy aboard a subway train whose attention is detracted to the curious sight of a dozing young man on crutches with a scarred hole extending through the side of his face. The surreal episode then converges to a tunnel shot that emerges on a train platform where a gaunt, impassive station assistant unsuccessfully attempts crowd control and is quickly overpowered into the passenger car by rushing commuters. The overpowered station assistant is revealed to one of the dismissed soldiers eking out a living through a series of odd jobs in the uncertain economy of the preceding months before the handover of the colony to mainland China. His former military colleague Ga Yin (Tony Ho), unable to find employment commensurate to his accustomed standard of living in the corps, is goaded by his pragmatic and unsentimental parents to use his younger brother, Ga Suen's (Sam Lee) organized crime connections in order to secure work. Reluctantly accepting a job as a driver for a mob boss named Big Brother Wing (Chan Sang) under the rationalization that the position does not entail killing, Ga Yin inadvertently crosses path with Wing's willfully independent, errant daughter Jane (Jo Kuk): first, as Ga Suen plays a prank on the beautiful and coy young woman at a gas station, and subsequently, as Wing orders an impromptu chase after spotting her car in traffic. Faced with a disreputable and tenuous future as a mobster's hired thug, Ga Suen joins his former comrades in hatching a plan to rob a British-owned bank under the chaotic cover of the sporadic, ongoing celebrations in the days leading to the official handover.

The second installment of Fruit Chan's loosely defined handover trilogy (that also includes Made in Hong Kong and Little Cheung), The Longest Summer is a boldly realized, idiosyncratically comical, and indelibly captivating exposition on rootlessness, disconnection, anarchy, and moral dissolution. Chan juxtaposes images of renewal and death in order to reflect the endemic ambivalence and lawless opportunism of life for Chinese colonials during the transitional period of the handover: the shot of the ex-soldiers literally adrift on raft as the unexpected, ghost-like image of a recently fired, former colleague appears on the water; the recurring use of the nostalgic melody, Auld Lang Syne; the public viewing of a fireworks display to commemorate the opening of the Tsing Ma Suspension Bridge that is used as a diversion for a mob contract killing (a scenario that is similarly repeated in the pursuit of Ga Suen on the evening of the official oath-taking ceremony). The film's alternately humorous, surreal, and bittersweet final scene shows Ga Yin and Jane's alienated encounter on a Hong Kong street after the handover - a haunting and poignant encapsulation of the traumatic and involuntary erasure of personal memories and past history of a people striving to build a new life in their politically abandoned and dislocated homeland.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Xilu xiang, 2000
[Little Cheung]

Yiu/MakLittle Cheung (Yiu Yuet-Ming) has learned that money and existence are inextricably connected to each other: "I've known from an early age, money is a dream. It's a fantasy. It's also a future." His doting grandmother, a former Chinese opera actress, spends her afternoons gambling at a mah jong parlor. His grandmother's affable and religious Filipina maid comically reminds everyone that she is entitled to overtime payment for working on Sundays. Even his namesake, a national celebrity and his grandmother's former acquaintance, Brother Cheung, appears on television for public fund raising activities. It is a lesson that is not lost on Little Cheung as he delivers food on his bicycle for his father's restaurant, using his charm and boyish good looks to entice customers into leaving him bigger tips. Nevertheless, the purpose for accumulating money is one that seems alien to the enterprising boy, as he squanders his earnings to secure a special ordered Tamagotchi electronic toy pet. But Little Cheung has another, far more serious goal: to reunite with his older brother who was disowned by his father after falling into delinquency. One day, an immigrant little girl from mainland China named Fan (Mak Wai-Fan) inquires about a posted delivery job at the family restaurant and is immediately chased away by Little Cheung's father. The episode captures Little Cheung's attention, and he decides to follow Fan and offer her a job assisting him in his deliveries for a share of the collected tip money. It is a mutually beneficial association that leads to a close friendship between the two children. However, Little Cheung's attempts to find his brother prove to have serious consequences as his search causes disharmony in the family and indirectly threatens to expose the illegal residency of Fan's family.

Little Cheung
is a poignant, lyrical, and compassionate film on materialism and loss of innocence. By illustrating the stark contrast between the privileged, insular life of Little Cheung and the meager existence of Fan (who is often shown in exterior shots), Fruit Chan illustrates the inherent social dichotomy between Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese immigrants during the transitional period prior to the handover of Hong Kong. As in Chan's subsequent film, Durian Durian, the harsh life and eventual fate of young Fan and her family serve to underscore the economic and social disparity that tend to divide, rather than unite, the two regions: the image of children, presumably mainland Chinese immigrants, being removed from school seems incongruous with the latter image of Hong Kong children learning the official Chinese salute. But in the end, Fan's naive declaration that "Hong Kong is ours", like the promise of wealth and a brighter future in post-handover Hong Kong, proves to be an unattainable dream.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Liulian piao piao, 2000
[Durian Durian]

QinA sweet little girl from the the city of Shenzhen in mainland China named Fan (Mak Wai-fan) recounts with innocent reflection her father's early dawn ritual of dressing in complete darkness, preparing his meal, and rolling his portable cart to the train station, as he makes his exhausting daily commute to Hong Kong to buy and sell cigarettes. It is a difficult life of prolonged separation, and Fan waits in eager anticipation for the return of Hong Kong to China, when the family can freely immigrate to Hong Kong to start a new life under better economic conditions. In the meantime, her parents have decided to take up residence in the poor, working class district of Mongkok under three month temporary visas in the hope that they can avoid deportation to mainland China until the reunification renders their violation of expired visas irrelevant. Everyday, as Fan and her mother wash dishes in the street, she observes a beautiful, well dressed young prostitute named Yan (Qin Hailu) traverse the narrow, squalid street, accompanied by her street tough pimp (Wai Yiu Yung). The film then shifts focus to follow Yan as she hurriedly eats a meal, collects a set of towels from a nondescript hotel, encourages her client to take a shower, cajoles him into giving her a big tip, looking under the mattress for loose change. One day, while walking through the alley with Yan, the pimp is knocked unconscious when he is struck in the back of the head with a spiky, hard skinned durian fruit. Unable to call the police because of her profession and temporary residency, Yan seeks assistance from Fan's mother, who is equally unwilling to become involved for fear of drawing attention to their illegal immigrant status. The chance encounter with Fan proves to be the start of an innocent friendship between the two heroines. Soon, the similarities between the younger Fan and the older, more experienced Yan emerge, as the two mainland immigrants find their idealistic view of Hong Kong shattered by limited opportunity, an unfamiliar culture, and marginalized existence.

Fruit Chan creates an affectionate, contemplative, and sensitively realized film on disillusionment, economic survival, and nostalgia in Durian Durian. The figurative national homecoming of Hong Kong through the British handover of the colony to China as a Special Administrative Region in 1997 serves as a personal account of the lives of Fan and Yan as they find themselves alienated from their adopted home and longing for the familiar ritual and simple life of their native land. Chan uses contrasting camerawork and color palettes to illustrate the dichotomous lifestyles of the two regions: the dark, saturated hues of anonymous hotel rooms, rapid cuts, and frenetic pace of Mongkok's streets seem alien and incongruous with the longer takes, medium shots, and warm tones of northeast China. Inevitably, what emerges is a sense of disconnection, abandonment, and irreconcilability that invariably reflects the incongruence and uncertainty of life in post handover Hong Kong.

©Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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