Hong Kong films at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival

Beauty | The Poet | My Rice Noodle Shop

I've been less and less impressed with the Toronto International Film Festival's selections of Hong Kong films over the past couple of years. David Overbey, who used to be such a trailblazing programmer of Hong Kong cinema ("discovering" years ago for North American audiences the work of such mainstays of HK filmmaking as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai) seems to be losing interest in the SAR's film industry. This year, none of his choices from Hong Kong was particularly distinguished: all were safe, more or less well crafted, rather sedate movies (much like the much ballyhooed and quite disappointing Soong Sisters, from TIFF '97) that broke no new ground.

Those of us living in Toronto are still privileged to have one (or two, or three, depending on the time of year) first run Hong Kong movie houses, so we've been able to follow the recent product on our own. What might have been chosen, by a festival programmer sensitive to new trends in HK film, and willing to experiment a bit, would include:

Fruit Chan's amazing low budget poem to HK's dispossessed youth Made in Hong Kong (how could Toronto have missed this?)

 Portland Street Blues, a  substantial spin-off of 1996's Young and Dangerous (goo wat jai) craze, and a brilliant showcase for Sandra Ng

 Ann Hui's beautifully realized adaptation of Eileen Chang's novel Eighteen Springs

 Eric Kot's experimental, scatter-shot but frequently stunning First Love: the Litter on the Breeze (shot by Christopher Doyle, produced by Wong Kar-wai)

 Patrick Leung's bravely genre-defying Task Force

 anything by the Wai Ka-fai / Patrick Yau / Johnny To company Milky Way Productions (surely HK's most energetic and creative film company since the handover): Expect the Unexpected ; The Longest Nite ; Too Many Ways to Be Number One ; The Odd One Dies

 Stanley Kwan's new commercial / art-house crossover Hold You Tight

 even Gordon Chan's raucous and provocative Beast Cops

Instead, here's what we got:

Beauty = Bishonen = Mei shao nian zhi lian
director: Yonfan (Yeung Fan)
prod. co:  Far Sun Film Co. Ltd.
producers: Sylvia Chang
screenplay: Yonfan
d.p.:  Henry Chung
editor: Kam Ma
music: Chris Babida

cast: Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu, Jason Tsang, Terence Yin, Shu Qi

in Cantonese with English subtitles, 101min.

A voyeuristic slide along the surface of Hong Kong's gay subculture. Beauty is about prostitutes, cops posing for gay photographers, gay pop stars... Presumably, there's more to HK's gay community than this, but that's not the concern of photographer Yonfan's new film. He is a very facile director, and easily offers lots of technical polish, glossy surfaces, pretty-boy shots of his stars. But that seems to be all the film is aiming for. Or at least that's all it reaches: it's hard to escape from the impression that we, as viewers, are made to stand on the outside, looking in, at a world that -- whether or not it has the sympathy of the filmmakers -- remains an object of curiosity, or pity, or sympathy. There's been a mini-explosion of gay-themed Hong Kong films of late: Happy Together (1997), Portland Street Blues (1998), Hold You Tight (1998), The Intimates (1997), or even Love and Sex Among the Ruins (1996) and Boy's? (1996) have more original and interesting things to say than Beauty. Yonfan described the film as having been made for women (presumably heterosexual) who wanted to watch beautiful young men: an odd goal, but perhaps he's succeeded at that. Redeeming features: well, Daniel Wu, in his first feature, as the strikingly Andy Lau-like police officer (the film goes so far as to restage a memorable Lau-as-cop shot from Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild: hmm, Lau as gay idol?) is at the centre of the film, and manages to create a convincingly well-rounded character. And Hsu Chi turns in yet another memorable supporting performance. 

The Poet = Gu Cheng bie lian 
director: Casey L.Y. Chan
prod. co: Golden-Culture-Times
producer: Casey L.Y. Chan
screenplay: Lau Tin-Chi
d.p.: Poon Hang-Sang
editor: Mak Chi-Sin
music: Kenneth Fong

cast: Stephen Fung, Teresa Lee, Ayako Morino, Joe Cheung Tung-cho, Yeung  Jing

in Mandarin and English with English subtitles, 91 minutes

I'm unhappy to report that it's hard to conceive of this film as other than an out-and-out failure. The filmmakers apparently were aiming for an art house feature, based on the dramatic life and death of famous Chinese poet Gu Cheng. But the result could better be described as a television-style biography-of-the-month, with art house pretentions. Gu Cheng's story is certainly irresistible to film: from a family persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, he developed into perhaps the most famous of the "Misty Poets" who flourished in the relatively open cultural climate of the early 80s. He emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and his lover, to disport in a garden of Eden of their own creation, but found no peace. Increasingly unstable, Gu Cheng stopped writing poetry: his wife tried to leave him, but he killed her and then committed suicide. 

A very talented crew doesn't seem to have been able to rescue the resultant screenplay: melodramatic life-of-troubled-artist scenes alternate with oddly unerotic sexual interludes (with Stephen Fung and dubbed Japanese actress Ayako Morino) and portentously "poetic" observations of the Gu Cheng character. Stephen Fung may be able to play a narcissistic male prostitute (see above), but he's not up to this complex role. Theresa Lee, who is normally a fine actress, has no room to maneuver here: it sounds like most of her dialogue is dubbed by someone else (although she did her own Mandarin dialogue in Jacob Cheung's The Intimates (1997)). 

My Rice Noodle Shop = Hua qiao rong ji
director: Xie Yang
prod. co.: Welling Asia Film
producers: G.Y. Choi,  James Tsim, Xie Yang
screenplay: Cindy Yang, Yang Xie, based on "Blossom Bridge" by Kenneth Pai
d.p.: Jone Lin
editor:Wong Yee Shun
music: Albert Young
cast: Carol Cheng, Kevin Lin, Ku Bao-Ming Ku, Fang Yu, Zhang Zong-Di

in Mandarin, with English subtitles, 96 minutes

It's wonderful to see Hong Kong movie star Carol "Dodo" Cheng back on a movie screen, after an absence of something like 4 years. She has always been known as a fine comedic actress, but My Rice Noodle Shop gives her a chance to show off her range. She portrays the tough, eventful life of "Mama Boss" from childhood in pre-1949 Guilin to disillusionment in 1970s Taipei, where she struggles to run a noodle shop and contend with a host of colourful customers. But her fine work here is still not enough to animate this otherwise picturesquely sluggish film. Like director Xie Yang's first movie, Maiden Rosé (1994), this veers close to light entertainment, and "life-affirming" sentiment. Every character in the film has a story to tell, largely having to do with their sense of loss and displacement in Taiwan, after having retreated from the mainland in 1949. But a series of powerful Taiwanese films have treated the subject with far greater subtlety and power (Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness (1989), Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991)), so there is not much space left for Xie Yang. Perhaps the slightly out-of-date feel wouldn't be so apparent to a Western audience, who might in fact be the intended target for My Rice Noodle Shop. 

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Shelly Kraicer 
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