Actioner 'Punished' delights in the story of a morally ambiguous businessman played by Anthony Wong.

SFFS's Hong Kong Cinema Series Brings Fan Fare to New Screen

Adam Hartzell September 22, 2011

Audience-engaging stories in a variety of genres highlight SFFS's inaugural Hong Kong Cinema series.

The words “Hong Kong” and “genre” go hand in hand for many cinephiles, and San Francisco Film Society’s debut Hong Kong Cinema series takes firm grasp of the film hub’s popular storytelling traditions. Action thrillers Punished and City Under Siege are on the docket, as is period martial arts with comedy wire-fu-ing in Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. Romantic comedies Don't Go Breaking My Heart and All About Love offer contrast to tear-jerking dramas Echoes of the Rainbow and Merry-Go-Round.

The best of the action crop during the September 23-25 showcase is Law Wing-cheong's Punished (Bou ying, 2011). Produced by Johnnie To, the film features Anthony Wong playing a powerful businessman of questionable ethics whose sense of control is challenged when his estranged adult daughter is kidnapped. Punished has enough moral ambiguity around issues of family and loyalty to intrigue those who might not always appreciate this genre's celebrations of the underworld. On the lighter side of action, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (San kei hap lui, Vincent Kok, 2011) playfully parodies genre by plopping superheroes into a period piece. Offering the most bangs and body bags of the action bunch, City Under Siege notches up the special effects and fighting as it follows a hero and many villains after they acquire superpowers from exposure to chemicals found in a dormant Japanese military lab.

The cosmopolitan diversity of Hong Kong is quite present in the two romantic comedies on display. Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Daan gyun naam yu, 2011) gets inside a love triangle with Chinese transplant Zixin (Yuanyuan Gao, who also stars in the Chinese film City of Life and Death, which opens at Landmark's Opera Plaza this weekend), who has two suitors. Shen (Louis Koo, who also features in Mr. and Mrs. Incredible) is a flashy Hong Kong playboy who rides the waves of the global financial crisis to end up on his fiscal feet again, and Kevin (Daniel Wu) is a briefly dispirited architect who finds renewed inspiration in a chance meeting with our female lead. The financial office where Zixin works is a microcosm of the diversity of Hong Kong and much is made of the stamps in Shen's romantic passport of partners. One of the genre demands of romcoms is the outsized creative effort required to woo the love interest and Don't Go Breaking My Heart definitely fulfills this need with the type of extravagance that only characters with considerable bank accounts could provide.

Besides providing a tiny glimpse into the lives of Filipino migrant laborers in Hong Kong, (for whom much greater space will be made in the wonderful Pinoy Sunday, part of next month's Taiwan Film Days series), Ann Hui's All About Love (De xian chao fan, 2010) adds some LGBT flavor to the cosmopolitan blend in a love hexagon featuring actresses Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow. The film throws in feminist and queer political points at a peppering pace, showing the impact of patriarchal culture on men as well as bi-phobia in the lesbian community all while using the sweetness of comedy to help the medicine go down. The audience is propelled into the dizzyingly confused world of the characters by dancing dialogue and the regular use of the infamous escalators that link the Central and Western Districts of Hong Kong, where our two primary lovebirds keep changing directions from one apartment to another and back again.

Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow (Shui yuet san tau, 2010) had me feeling nostalgic for a time and place I've never experienced. Hairstyles, fashions and music of 1960s Hong Kong color Echoes of the Rainbow's scenes seen through the little eyes of a young boy nicknamed Big Ears. It’s one of three films to feature Sandra Ng in this mini-festival. Although she’s known for her comedic work, fully on display in different ways in Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (more slapstick comedy) and All About Love (more situational comedy), Ng is in top form in her part in this dramatic film of a family (Simon Yam playing her husband equally expertly) whose economic situation seems secure until a son's scholarly and physical success begins to falter and calamity strikes their store's inventory. The use of documentary footage puts a very particular 1960s Hong Kong mark on this otherwise universal narrative of a family's efforts to survive and provide a better future for their children. It won a slew of honors (for screenplay, actor, new performer, original song) in Hong Kong’s Film Awards last year.

After some intimate images of our City by the Bay in the opening sequences, Yan Yan Mak and Celment Cheng's romantic drama Merry-Go-Round (Dongfeng po, 2010) sends two San Francisco-based characters jetting off to Hong Kong for the rest of the film, one to reconcile her past, the other to come to terms with her future. Following the indie film tradition of slowly revealing character connections as the narrative progresses, we are provided many flashbacks to the 1940s interspersed in less than obvious transitions that add to the complexity of the relationships. If Eva, played by Nora Miao, looks like she can't possibly be in her 80s as the film's storyline suggests, an effort to dismiss this visual dissonance is attempted when Eva says she's able to look younger than a fellow practitioner of Chinese medicine who is her same age because she started using Chinese medicine much earlier than him.

What stands out about Merry-Go-Round for a San Franciscan may be how it reveals the interconnected histories of these two polyphonous destinations: Both cities were global before “globalization” became the buzz word. (Echoes of The Rainbow hints briefly at this history as well when we scan packages heading for 2550 Van Ness Avenue. Presently the site of the Heritage Marina Hotel, that address first appears in the Polk's San Francisco City Directory of 1964-1965 as the Continental Lodge Motel.) This is a history San Francisco reminds you about every day, perhaps because your family tree hails back to Hong Kong, or because your work or play takes you along the more signifying routes of this history, the 30 Stockton, 1 California, N-Judah and the neighborhoods of Chinatown, the Richmond, or the Sunset those lines feed. Merry-Go-Round offers a perfect example of why this city needs, and deserves, a festival of Hong Kong Cinema.