The Reel Asian International Film Festival (Toronto):

Leaving In Sorrow: a review

Festival overview:

The 5th Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (November 15-25, 2001) featured a spotlight on recent Hong Kong independent film. This series, co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Canada, included Christine Choi's feature documentary Ha Ha Shanghai (2001), the omnibus film Heroes in Love (Lianai qiyi, 2001), Vincent Chui's first feature Leaving in Sorrow (Youyou chouchou de zou le, 2001), and Kenneth Bi's first feature A Small Miracle (Xiao qiji, 2000). Leaving Sorrowfully , the newest of this group of films, was clearly the highlight, and I discuss it at greater length in the column on the right.

Reel Asian itself, which also features North American Asian cinema and, this year, recent Japanese independent feature films and experimental videos, was, as usual, Toronto's most user-friendly film festival. The organisers work hard to set a tone that's relaxed and altogether warm and inclusive. And the measure of their success can be found in the willingness of their audiences (though these can be rather modest in size) to welcome the work of young filmmakers whose films and videos are sometimes challenging, sometimes more full of promise than completely polished, but always worthy of enthusiastic attention.

Before discussing briefly the Hong Kong features on display, I should mention three of the stand-out shorts by Canadian directors. Nobu Adilman's I Pie (a Love Story) (Super 8, 5 min), an ode to homemade pie-baking, was as hilariously witty as it was lovely to look at. Ken Takahashi's The Milkman (16mm, 8 min) supplied the festival's requisite wild shock factor, but in a way that was strangely subdued and unaccountably gentle. Julia Kwan's Three Sisters on Moon Lake (16mm, 22 min.), the most elaborately realized of the three, is a heart-breaking fable that pits three adolescent sisters, one a self-described (and accurately so) genius, and a powerful Rat-Goddess against a frighteningly unloving family

Ha Ha Shanghai, Christine Choi's most recent video feature, purports to be about her Kafkaesque travails as she tries to recover her family home in Shanghai from its current residents and the protective obfuscation of government bureaucrats. Choi weaves together encounters with childhood friends, glimpses of Shanghai's pre-revolutionary culture, and revelations about her own past. But her real, though largely implicit, concern is with the unreliability of first-hand testimony, the traps of nostalgia, the unbridgeable distance between the present and our reconstructed memories of the past.

The ultra low budget A Small Miracle has had a certain amount of festival exposure (in Tokyo and Jeonju, South Korea) despite its evident weaknesses, which include desultory genre-bound plotting, indifferent acting, and slapdash digital photography. Its plot – an ordinary man caught up in petty gangland intrigue – sports lots of cartoonish violence, but has very little to catch and hold the viewer's interest. The film perks up right at the end, though, with a lively canto-rap number by Hong Kong favourite bad boy musicians LMF.

Heroes in Love is an uneven three-part work directed by a four HK youth idols, the result of a calculated attempt by the company behind it, Emperor Multimedia Group, to sponsor a commercially viable "art-house style" film. A fine technical crew (highlighted by Wong Kar-wai's editor William Chang and Fruit Chan's cinematographer O Sing-pui) can do only so much with designer/photographer Wing Shya's first directorial effort, the murky lesbian-stalking drama Kidnap. The less said about actors/singers turned directors Nicholas Tse and Stephen Fung's adolescent gun-fetish ballad My Beloved the better.

Radio personality GC Goo-Bi -- a 22 year-old prodigiously talented one-woman HK youth culture factory -- pulls off quite a coup with her instalment Oh G!. It's a fresh, vibrant, super-cute but somehow not at all cloying look at a brief love affair between sweet and innocent Charlene Choi and funky, self-absorbed Lawrence Chou. It's not common to find an up-to-the-minute peek into Hong Kong youth culture like this: neither condescending nor banal. One stunning scene "sells" the movie: Choi and Chou, in an uninterrupted three minute-long take, sing an a cappella duet straight through. Like the famous "Madison" dance sequence in Godard's Bande à part (1964), this scene grants to us a moment of wonder, almost elation. We think we are watching a scene of characters playing their roles, but the shot imperceptibly shifts to something completely different: a document of actors performing "live" as themselves, caught on film.

The producer of Heroes in Love, Jan Lamb, offers a fascinating epilogue that re-imagines the three preceding stories: a voice-over narration reinterprets selected, altered images from the film's previous chapters in a semi-abstract manner that threatens to outshine most of the preceding film This segment is in the manner of other recent Hong Kong mainstream/experimental film works, such as Lamb's Four Faces of Eve, and Eric Kot's Dragon Heat, and makes one wonder how much significant work that unusual HK stylistic fusion might inspire, given enough courageous financial support.

Leaving In Sorrow

[chinese char.]

Youyou chouchou de zoule

Hong Kong, 2001

director: Vincent Chui
screenplay: Patrick Kong & Vincent Chui

cinematography: S.K. Yip
editor: Kedy Fan & Ip Yuk-yiu
design: Carmen Cheng
producer: Vincent Chui
production co.: Ying E Chi


Tony Ho Wah-chiu ... Pastor Lai
Ivy Ho ... Ivy
Shawn Yu Man-lok ... Hong
Crystal Lui ... Chris
Duncan Lai ... Ray
Sheung Ming Fai ... Kwong

90 minutes ; digital video

[film still]

Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, November 2001 (revised 27 December 2001)

It is a pleasure to be able to welcome Vincent Chui's first feature, Leaving In Sorrow into the first rank of new Hong Kong independent films. It joins a relatively small number of such films, including Carol Lai's beautifully crafted drama Glass Tears (Boli shaonü, 2001) and Lawrence Wong's ingeniously off-beat Cross Harbour Tunnel (Guohai suidao, 1999). Chui and screenwriter Patrick Kong have created an intriguing and quite engaging experiment, whose strengths suggest that these young filmmakers' futures will be well worth following.

The film is an urban drama filmed in digital video (following Evans Chan's Map of Sex and Love (Qingse ditu, 2001), the first HK digital feature). Its style is explicitly modelled upon the Dogme 95 aesthetic, a manifesto of "authentic" lean cinema made famous by Danish director Lars von Trier. Leaving In Sorrow uses the Dogme "vow of chastity" as a stylistic underpinning -- no artificial lighting or sound effects, no extra-diegetic music, hand held cameras only, all shooting on location. But in essence, the film sits comfortably in the immediate pre- and post-1997 Hong Kong tradition of urban anxiety, floating cosmopolitanism, and chronological determinism (time, in the form of the Deadline, means everything) that characterized the HK film industry's more serious-minded productions in the era around the SAR's return to mainland sovereignty.

Leaving in Sorrow is a story about movement and about home: its themes are emigration, immigration, abandoning and recovering the places one calls home. It follows three lightly interlocked stories, set in Hong Kong, Beijing, and San Francisco. In the first, HK born, SF resident, Ray, a young vaguely info-tech style businessman and hyperactive "ladies' man" returns to HK to reunite with his semi-estranged father. The death of a cherished elder relative draws both back to their native mainland village, where Ray experiences a somewhat clichéd reawakening. The second story involves the upright but timorously passive Pastor Alex Lai and his money-minded real estate agent wife Ivy. They struggle as the strains in their marriage become exacerbated by overheated pre-1997 HK property market: Lai wrestles with selling his church to hustler/developers, as Ivy, planning to emigrate to NYC, schemes to sell their flat. The third story, the most carefully delineated of the set, follows HK gossip magazine writer Hong on his dogged (even stalker-like) pursuit of his editor Chris. His unrelenting efforts finally wear her down. Much later, she reveals to him her still traumatic memories of studying in Beijing in June 1989, and he takes her back to confront what she left behind.

Vincent Chui's handling of this material is a bit uneven, but that's an entirely forgivable flaw in a first feature with as many strengths as this one. The three stories, though they receive equal weight, are not equally well realised. Ray (Duncan Lai), the San Franciscan, is the least convincing character. His progress is a bit too schematic, and we're left with very little sense of any actual personality behind his suavely attractive womanizing façade.

Reverend Lai (Tony Ho) and his wife Ivy (Ivy Ho) are more interesting. We see his increasing discomfort as he tries to hold onto a relatively limited conception of a life lived according to moral principles, in a city that doesn't lend much support to his ideals. The portrayal of Ivy, aided by a subtle, finely modulated performance by first-time actress Ivy Ho, starts as a simple satire of a life devoted to commercialism. But it develops into a surprisingly sympathetic picture of self-awareness, as we witness her catch a glimpse of the shallowness, the emptiness of the life she's committed herself to.

Chris, the magazine editor, played superbly by Crystal Lui, is the film's most fully conceived character, and gets a performance to match. Her character offers a key to the film's deeper analysis of Hong Kong's dilemma. Starting from a job plugged into Hong Kong's culture of quick consumption (purveying celebrity gossip), she discovers that she has a buried history, one that she finally confronts with courage and great pain in a final scene whose power remains vivid long after the film's closing credits.

A project like this might have become an overly schematic, political mapping of the typical underpinnings of an upwardly mobile class of HKers' traumas and complexes. But Chui simultaneously complicates and lightens the film with a nervously fractured style. The skittering, quick-cutting, constantly reframing cameras (Chui used two during filming) can be a bit wearying, but it's not merely a stylistic affectation. Chui makes it integral to the film: a jumpy sense of space, an unstable set of points of view, scenes constructed out of brief takes shuffled together to leave tiny gaps, elisions, small jumps in space and time, a constant uneasy disequilibrium that can never quite settle down (with one notable exception). These techniques successfully evoke the fractured incoherencies inherent in the particular time and place – 1997 Hong Kong – that the film's characters float in.

The constant sound of radio and television news in the background is the film's best conceit. Excerpts of protest rallies, denunciations of government officials, democratic speeches: the film is filled with the mediatized record of HK's history of democratic resistance to 1997. This "background noise" is in fact the film's musical score. It places the characters' lives in a precise political context, pins their struggles to a particular chronology of HK history, and acts as a constant commentary underpinning their actions. It is very welcome, and rather uncommon, to find a recent Hong Kong feature film with such an explicitly political register. One thinks of Fruit Chan's handover trilogy (1997, 1998, 1999), Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes (1999), Evans Chan's Map of Sex and Love (2001), and Herman Yau's From the Queen to the Chief Executive (2001) as signal exceptions to recent HK cinema's political amnesia. This separates Leaving in Sorrow from much recent HK independent cinema that I've seen, where characters seem to have walked straight out of a Tsai Ming-liang film, already primed with a generalized alienation and indeterminate ennui.

Chui's film neatly elides the precise moment of the handover, the anchor-point of Hong Kong Time: the action disconcertingly jumps from the last huge June 4 commemoration in Hong Kong a month before the handover to a year or more afterwards, when Hong Kongers are forced to deal with the effects of the post-1997 Asian economic slump. The film affords its characters no grounding, no stable fulcrum around which history pivoted (July 1), but takes them directly from pre- to post-return disequilibrium. But Leaving in Sorrow largely keeps its own balance, aligning style, structure, mood, and setting to fine expressive effect.

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