(Hong Kong/China) Hong Kong director Flora Lau’s directorial debut was screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year and it’s already gaining traction, with overwhelmingly positive reviews—and for good reason. The film is topical and emotionally fraught for all of us in Hong Kong, posing questions of wealth and status between our city and the mainland: questions that are on all our minds.
The film explores the complex relationship between Hong Kong and China by chronicling the story of two characters: tai tai Anna, played by a sublime Carina Lau; and her mainlander driver Fai (Chen Kun). When Anna’s source of income—her husband—inexplicably goes missing, she is left scrambling for money, all the while madly keeping up appearances. Meanwhile, Fai faces his own problems: his wife is pregnant with their second child. With no money to pay the penalty for breaking the one-child policy, they struggle to find her a place to give birth in Hong Kong instead. Despite the time that Anna and Fai spend together, the lives they lead couldn’t be any more different—and yet the problems they face seem to intertwine.
Carina Lau’s portrayal of the emotionally removed rich housewife is spot-on. You can almost see the boredom radiating out of her, as she mundanely orders people around and nonchalantly picks up the bill for high tea with fellow tai tais. But the underlying panic is still very much there, as the realization sinks in that her fortune is diminishing and her life is in freefall. While Fai is arguably worse off than Anna, Chen’s performance as the struggling blue-collar worker is slightly overshadowed by Lau’s, and you can’t help but feel for her that much more by comparison. That’s not to say Chen’s portrayal of Fai is lackluster—scene after scene, he stands silent, chain-smoking and internally debating what step to take, as matters become more and more urgent with each passing day. In one particularly touching scene, Fai shouts at a passing crowd in tears: an act of utter hopelessness after he’s been repeatedly rejected south of the border.
Between Flora Lau’s creditable first-time efforts and master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the movie is an exercise in contrasts and similarities. We see Anna’s sprawling house on the Peak and Fai’s humble abode in Shenzhen; her fancy gear and his run-down wardrobe: all highlight just how dramatically their lives differ, but how the issues they face are deeply similar.
The audience is kept at arm’s length throughout, never becoming fully emotionally engaged with either of the characters. It may be intentional on Lau’s part, a further example of the film’s theme of disconnection. But combine this with a few unexplained plot points, and the film demands quite a bit of effort from its audience in order to follow along. Perhaps it’s the mark of a first-time director, or simply a matter of a script that could have been tighter. Still, it’s very easy to demonize those north of the border, and Lau (with help from her on-screen Lau) does well to make us realize that rich or poor, Chinese or Hongkonger: we’ve all got the same problems.
Directed and written by Flora Lau
Starring Carina Lau, Chen Kun, Tian Yuan
Opened Nov 21