Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, April, 2000.
With a brilliant style and subject, and a nuanced, subtly balanced political subtext, director Fruit Chan's Little Cheung was the most impressive Hong Kong film on display at the 2000 Hong Kong International Film Festival. This film is the final part of Chan's 1997 handover trilogy, following Made in Hong Kong (1997) and The Longest Summer (1998), though the fact that it has its own sequel, Durian Durian [Liu lian piao piao, 2000] complicates matters (I left Hong Kong before Durian Durian screened as one of the two closing films, so I am not able to review it here). .
Set within a few blocks of Portland Street, an extremely dense, Triad-haunted working class Hong Kong neighbourhood of Mongkok, Fruit Chan's little masterpiece tells the story of Little Cheung, a 9-year-old occasional delivery boy at his father's short-order restaurant. In its focus on the family and the surrounding neighbourhood, the film recalls the classic family neo-realist dramas of an earlier Cantonese cinema. It is richly populated with vaguely clownish, slightly menacing triad toughies, wise old coffin makers, former Cantonese opera actors and extras, newspaper vendors, dishwashers, genial and not-so-genial cops: an entire self-contained little world that Chan portrays with dense realism and obvious affection. The wonderful cast, almost entirely made up of non-professional actors, brings all of these characters to vivid, three-dimensional life. But the film's centre has to be nine-year-old prodigy Yiu Yuet-ming, who gives an astonishingly powerful and charismatic performance as the slightly goofy, passionate, and impossibly world-wise narrator and title character.
Chan has described Little Cheung as a generation-spanning film, its characters balanced between children and the elderly. Little Cheung teams up with Fan, a girl his age who, along with her mother, is an illegal immigrant from China. Fan and her mother surreptitiously wash dishes down the street, behind a restaurant where Fan's father works legally. Little Cheung befriends Fan and offers her extra income as his delivery partner (they split the tips). His strongest relationship is with his grandmother, who seems to divide her time between telling him stories of her past and watching TV with him. In fact, Fruit Chan dedicates his film (in an opening title) to the subject of her viewing: Tang Wing-cheung. Tang, or "Brother Cheung" to his fans, was a real-life former Cantonese opera and movie musical star whose old films seem to play continuously on television. If her stories are to be trusted, Grandma seems to have known personally, co-starred with him in her youth, and perhaps even had an affair with him.
Like all of Chan's work, Little Cheung is also a political film. Brother Cheung's death coincides with the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese control: both episodes play significant roles in the film. In a striking sequence, Little Cheung, in school, celebrates the "return to the motherland" with a flag waving mass salute bristling with regimented lines of schoolchildren and rigidly symmetrical camerawork (Chan needs nothing more explicit than this to comment on the HK Special Administrative Region's new political climate). But this scene is tempered with Little Cheung and Fan's rhapsodic bicycle ride along the HK harbour promenade, set against that inescapable Hong Kong skyline, as they fling louder and louder shouts of "Hong Kong is now ours" into the harbour. This scene is itself set beside the film's most heart-rending moments, of Fan and fellow mainlanders (who also have no HK residence permits) rounded up and marched into police vehicles prior to deportation back to the mainland.
Chan builds his film out of just such a counter-weighted structure. Scenes recoil from or counter-balance preceding scenes in a way that invites us constantly to re-evaluate what we have already seen, to rethink it in the context of what is presently unfolding in front of us. Think, for example, of the devastating image of Fan and her fellow child deportees starring out through the bars they are clutching of the police van that carries them away. And contrast this with the film's iconic image of Little Cheung naked from the waist down on the base of a pillar in the middle of the street, standing as punishment for having tried to run away from home. Soaked by rain and urinating, Little Cheung declaims his passionate, rebellious lament, quoting a famous song of Brother Cheung's while molding it into a lyrical defiance of patriarchal authority.
Little Cheung's neo-realism only goes so far. It is a background, a genre touchstone and inspiration off which Chan bounces his freely-spun flights of magical fantasy: passionately conceived scenes that skirt but just avoid sentimentality through their honest, precise detailing. Stylistic references are plural, heterogeneous. Chan will use long takes from fixed cameras through doorways (from a Hou Hsiao-hsien-influenced Taiwanese art cinema); wildly associative montages and variable speed shooting (out of John Woo's urban action cinema); skewed angle photography and dynamically tracking cameras (taking a page from Tsui Hark's film kineticism); Rabelaisian gross-out scenes of the broadest comedy (HK schlock-master Wong Jing's specialty); and adds to them elements all his own. There are moments when the film's extended frame of reference seems to embrace and ratify the whole recent history of Hong Kong cinema, while at the same time re-synthesizing it into a poetic montage that feels utterly fresh, daringly new.
back to the index...
email the website editor
all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer