World City Lights: The Screens of Hong Kong

in 48th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Alexander Melyan

In the city’s ever-flowing and vibrant energy, the Hong Kong International Film Festival offered a welcome pause for numerous attendees. Among them was the FIPRESCI jury, which watched eight Chinese-language films from the Young Cinema Competition program. Family, journeys of self-discovery, the weight of history, generational clashes, and political subtext were the cornerstones of these films.

In Brief History of a Family by Jianjie Lin, Shuo, a shy boy from a disadvantaged family, is struck on the head with a basketball while hanging from a horizontal bar. As if in an attempt to lift the spirits of his traumatized classmate, Wei, who comes from the upper middle class, invites him over to play video games. Upon meeting his new friend’s parents, Shuo strangely and inexplicably earns their trust. Like an enigmatic character from a Pasolini film, he fulfills all their needs, starting with the mother and eventually attending to the father, unveiling their hidden desires and flaws along the way.

As often happens, it is hard to say who is more unhinged – the cold-hearted manipulator or the representatives of a reputable bourgeois family. Much like hardened and cynical investors, the parents, showing little remorse, choose to replace their own good-for-nothing son with a much more productive and promising stranger. First subtly, and later on more and more explicitly, the film addresses the impact of state policies on individual lives. China’s decade-long “One Family, One Child” demographic program has inflicted irreparable harm on numerous families across the country.

The family lives in the sterile and lifeless environment of an affluent apartment defined by rigid geometry. The schematic approach extends beyond the physical space to the accompanying soundscape. The interplay between editing and soundtrack attains a sense of automation. The characters are like single-celled organisms in a scientific study, their interactions scrutinized under a microscope.

Some Rain Must Fall by Qiu Yang also begins with a basketball striking someone on the head. This time “the culprit” is a 40-year-old housewife, Cai, who – in a fit of anger – forcefully snaps the ball that had accidentally grazed her at the school stadium, inadvertently injuring an elderly woman. The opening scene is quite promising, but as the film progresses, the director gradually reduces the intensity and slows down the pace.

The story revolves around the struggles of women in modern-day China. Cai is overwhelmed by several challenges: going through divorce proceedings, providing daily care for her mother-in-law who suffers from dementia, and managing the complicated relationship with her daughter. She exists in a constant state of ambiguity, haunted by a mysterious past and an uncertain future, silently suffocating in the bleakness of her everyday existence. The square image intensifies the sense of confinement and “looming” walls. Emotions are left unspoken, leading to uncontrollable outbursts of anger.

The chosen format prevents an emotional bond with the woman, making it difficult for the audience to empathize with her. Her essence remains shrouded in mystery.

The theme of fractured families persists in Borrowed Time by Choy Ji. Prior to her wedding, Ting resolves to seek out her long-absent father. We follow her journey from mainland China to Hong Kong. The film transforms into an exploration of the city, attempting to convey the subjective experience of navigating a new, unfamiliar environment. It becomes a voyage of self-discovery and reevaluation of personal history. The viewers are tasked with a puzzle composed of real memories, dreams, and ellipses. Through the interrelations between the characters, the director articulates the intricate dynamics between China and Hong Kong. The film’s title can be interpreted as a nod to the historical complexity of the city – a place in a state of uncertainty as if suspended in borrowed time.

In A Song Sung Blue by Zihan Geng, 15-year-old Liu Xian reunites with her father due to external circumstances rather than her own intentions (the girl’s mother, who raised her alone, embarks on a humanitarian mission to Africa). The film does not dwell on generational conflicts. The pivotal moment occurs not when Xian encounters her father, but when she gets to know the free-spirited daughter of his girlfriend. Through this relationship, she begins to explore both the world around her and her own identity. Accustomed to a secluded life, the girl gradually opens up to the outside world.

The transition to adulthood is depicted through the sensory experiences of the protagonist. The visuals are crafted from her thoughts, dreams, and intertwining realities. In this regard, the choice of colors holds particular significance. We see the events from Xian’s perspective, with everything cloaked in a bluish, foggy haze, lending the film its distinctive visual aesthetic. Later on, falling in love infuses reddish tones into her otherwise monochromatic, blue-hued inner universe.

Carefree Days by Liang Ming presents another coming-of-age story, less visually expressive yet extremely pathetic in its storytelling. Xu Lingling, the utterly unprepared and carefree protagonist, is confronted by the harsh realities of life: the divorce of her parents, her mother’s imminent death, and her own serious illness.

Liang tries to keep the balance by incorporating elements of romantic comedy. However, in this bittersweet storyline, the bitterness prevails. The moving, occasionally unsteady camera and extended takes aim to engulf the audience in the raw reality of the unfolding events. As a result, it seems as if a documentary camera has infiltrated the cinematic realm of total emotionality.

Snow in Midsommar, directed by Malaysian filmmaker Chong Keat Aun, raises a taboo subject – the events of May 13, 1969, the Sino-Malay sectarian violence in Kuala Lumpur. Viewers are immersed in the atmosphere of time and place through religious ceremonies, Chinese street opera, and genre films that are peacefully watched by people gathered in the cinema hall and unaware of the impending catastrophe. In addition to all this, there are also mythological fantasy scenes.

The director divides the story into two parts. From 1969 the action moves to the present day. The girl who survived those events, now a mature woman, goes in search of the graves of her relatives who died during the bloodshed. The film takes the form of an epic novel, and in many ways echoes the classic films of Taiwanese cinema, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness or Wan Jen’s Super Citizen Ko, which were also dedicated to the reexamination of suppressed collective trauma.

Fresh off Markham brings together three tales told by three directors (Kurt Yuen, Cyrus Lo, Trevor Choi). It delves into the life of an expatriate suburb in Markham, Canada – the new Little China – where cultures and prejudices clash. The film offers a kaleidoscope of humorous, peculiar, and unsettling scenarios.

A recent immigrant, persuaded by his friend who has already settled in the area, reluctantly agrees to participate in a robbery targeting a local Japanese restaurant. The sight of a katana in the scene ominously foreshadows the grim outcome of this endeavor. In subsequent misadventures, the heroes will be accompanied by a wealthy blogger-influencer and a black taxi driver who is ready to sell his soul for the sake of high ratings.

This is an homage to the crime-comedy films of the nineties, with the directors openly citing Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as a major influence. Simultaneously, they aim to address social issues, as the film revolves around the theme of emigration. However, it is hard to say that they succeeded in combining all these elements.

The most cinematically balanced, integral, and simply powerful film of the program turned out to be A Journey in Spring by Peng Tzu-Hui and Wang Ping-Wen. An elderly couple lives in a decaying, secluded house hidden in the wooded, mountainous outskirts of the invisible metropolis. Despite appearing estranged, the spouses are eternally bound, one cannot exist without the other. The details of their past remain undisclosed. Instead, their characters are revealed through simple observation and prolonged, static shots. Drawing inspiration from films of the New Taiwanese Wave (both actors have extensive experience working with directors like Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien), A Journey in Spring is a meditation on the topic of life, love, and loss.

The directors skillfully capture the magic of the place. As the protagonists return home from the city, they ascend a seemingly endless staircase, as though undergoing a mysterious ritual and entering the ghostly realm of forest spirits – a gateway between worlds. Similarly, the viewer, captivated by the serene rhythm of the story, is transported into an alternate state where time flows differently.

Alexander Melyan
Edited by Birgit Beumers