cast: Annette Shun Wah, Annie Yip, Anthony Wong, Edwin Pang,
Cecilia Fong Sing Lee, Toby Wong, Toby Chan
|Reviewed at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival by Shelly Kraicer
Clara Law's new film "Floating Life" has been on the film festival circuit for only a couple of months, and already it has won widespread acclaim, including a Silver Leopard prize at the 1996 Locarno Film Festival. It's easy to see why: FL is a nearly irresistible mix of hilarious Immigrants Disoriented in a New Land comedy and tear-jerking Immigrants Lost in a New Land pathos. The film is a new departure for Clara Law in a number of ways: a totally accessible art/entertainment film (worlds away from her highly stylized 1993 "Temptation of a Monk"), her first non-Hong Kong production (and the first subtitled Australian movie; it's in Cantonese, English and German), and has a cast without any movie "stars" (all the cast are newcomers to film, whom Law workshopped together for three weeks before beginning the actual filming).
Narrated by each of the children in turn, "Floating Life" is the story of the Chan family's emigration from Hong Kong. Mr. and Mrs. Chan and their 2 sons (Toby Wong & Toby Chan) leave HK to join youngest daughter Bing (Annie Yip) (an already settled and apparently functionally assimilated businesswoman) in her and her husband's vast new house in Australian suburbia. Eldest son Gar Ming (Anthony Wong) remains behind, drifting aimlessly and dissolutely in HK, waiting for his immigration papers. Eldest daughter Yen (Annette Shun Wah) lives in Germany with her daughter and German husband, but her comfortable home is cursed with comically terrible feng shui. She has to leave for Australia, via HK, when tensions between Bing and her newly arrived parents threaten to rupture the Chan family.
Played broadly and comically by at first by Annie Yip, Bing attempts to enforce on her parents and brothers her iron regimen of total, cold-turkey assimilation to Western ways. Bing is not only a family fascist: she's terrified to the point of paranoia of the dangers of Australian life (the hole in the ozone layer, vicious neighbourhood dogs, poisonous spiders, houses ready to burst into flame ...). The tension accumulates to hilarious effect until it snaps, the family threatens to shatter, and the story deepens and becomes more serious. Gar Ming drifts into nightmare in HK (after having to confront his dead grandfather's exhumation and his girlfriend's abortion), and he flees to join his parents. The most affecting section of the film explores the root of Bing's behaviour (in a flashback), and celebrates her mother's traditionally mediated response. Mrs. Chan sets up an altar to her family gods just outside the threshold of her new home, and appeals for their intercesion to save her daughter from breakdown.
Thus far, the elements of a standard Chinese diaspora movie. But several aspects of FL allow it to soar above this conventional, slightly predictable premise. Its structure is set out in chapters with a series of titles that define the sequence of houses the action passes through. Clara Law and cinematographer Dion Beebe have taken great care precisely to vary the look of the film. Various film stocks, filters and levels of exposure set off 1) the highly overexposed, bleached, almost colourless Australian scenes (to exaggerate how that foreign space must strike a new arrival from Asia); 2) a rich green pastel-hued Germany; and 3) a neon-bright, detail-packed and full colour spectrum HK (the look, through the distorting mirror of anguished memory, of all the life left behind).
When Clara Law and Eddie Fong's script aims to be funny, it is truly hilarious: the lost-in-Oz Chan family looks cute, silly, absurd and pitiable all at once in their timorous treks into the wilds of Sydney suburbia in full anti-sunburn gear. The acting that Law draws out of her novice cast is uniformly fine, but special mention must go to the astonishingly dignified and affecting performance by Cecilia Fong Sing Lee as Mrs. Chan. Her final, passionate prayer for her family is the film's most beautiful scene and its emotional climax.
In "Farewell China" (1990), Clara Law first set a film in world of the new Chinese diaspora, and created a portrait of post-apocalyptic (post-1989) tragedy. This time, "Floating Life" is neither a traditionalist anti-assimilation movie, nor a polemic about the need to copy Western ways in order to survive. The strongest characters, those who stay grounded in a sense of self, home and family, neither cling to nor reject their roots. Like Mrs. Chan, they embrace those traditions that keep them bound to family. For the HK community prepared and able to escape the colony before its recovery by China in 1997, Floating Life offers a pre-apocalyptic comedy, full of safe counsel on finding the middle way.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer