Tangled Life and Male Insecurity

in 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Ernest Chan Chi Wa

In the past decade, a few Hong Kong film critics formulated an observation about the “impotent males,” referring to those hapless protagonists of Hong Kong movies, trapped in dire straits due to their incompetence. Some suspected the Asian financial crisis and the SARS outbreak were the cause of insecurity in men who were used to be the sole financial providers in the traditional Chinese patriarchal society.

The Hong Kong International Film Festival assembled an excellent selection for the FIPRESCI competition this year. The twelve entries were all feature films by first time directors from various Asian countries. It is interesting that the “insecure male” can still be found in most of these films, like the paralyzed and embittered young man in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History (Jao Nok Krajok) and the coward, emotionally repressed amateur boxer in Mariko Tetsuya’s Yellow Kid (Ireoo Kiddo). These protagonists are often weaker and more passive than the women in the films, although the cause is not necessarily financial.

There were three Korean entries this year. In Jang Kun-Jae’s Eighteen (Hwioribaram), the young boy Tae-Hoon is prohibited from seeing his girlfriend Mi-Jeong until he enters university. In other words, he lives in a world filled with restrictions and frustrations. The title of Ryu Hyung-ki’s Our Fantastic 21st Century (Nu wa na-e lee-shib il-sae-gi) is ironic, for it is all but fantastic. The young girl Su-Yeong is obsessed with plastic surgery and is willing to take any risks to get the money to finance her aspiration.

In So Sang-Min’s I’m in Trouble! (Naneun Gonggyeonge Cheohaetda), the unemployed poet Sun-Woo always gets into trouble when he is drunk. Just like the male protagonists often found in Hong Sang-Soo’s films, Sun-Woo is immature and awkward with women. The film is neatly done and easily arouses the audience’s sympathy for the characters.

There were also three Taiwanese entries. Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taipei) is a sort of a Taipei version of Paris, je t’aime (2006). Many Taipei city landmarks such as Elite Bookstore, Shida Night Market and Da An Forest Park are captured in the film. The main character is a young man named Kai whose girlfriend left him for Paris. Brokenhearted, he fails to notice Susie’s (the bookshop girl) affection. When the confused Kai gets into trouble and his good friend Gao is kidnapped, Susie proves her courage by sticking with him throughout the adventure.

Hou Chi-Jan’s One Day (You Yi Tian) is a whimsical and stylish love story. A lovelorn soldier meets a young girl in his dream. He knows that tragedy will strike her if they meet in reality, but she is willing to take the risk for she does not want to “relinquish happiness for an unknown future.” Co-directed by Essay Liu and Wang Yu-Lin, Seven Days in Heaven (Fu Hou Qi Ri) was one of my favorites in the competition. The film covers the seven days of traditional Taoist funerary rituals. It begins with the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila” after which the voice-over of the daughter Mei (dubbed by Essay Liu) tells the story of a family coping with the mournful but absurd, real and yet surreal, funeral of the father. The ending is touching without being typically melodramatic.

Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (Ye Lang) and Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (Xun Huan Zuo Le) also scored high on my personal list, as well as with my fellow jury members. These two films examine the struggle for liberty from two different points of view. The High Life is divided into two parts – first the story of a petty con artist Jian Ming, and then the story of a prison guard and poet Dian Qiu. Seemingly unrelated, the two parts are connected in subtle ways. Both Jian Ming and Dian Qiu seek happiness in the wealthy but troubled contemporary Chinese society. Dian Qiu uses poetry to express himself in the prison environment, where as Jian Ming uses Chinese Opera as a means to free his soul from social imprisonment.

Adapted from the novel Black Feather, Tangle shows the tangled life of a traffic cop named Du Jun. Its remarkable cinematography brings to life the themes of pregnancy, abortion and sterility. In the beginning of the film, Du Jun and his colleague discuss how the cattle graze freely in the field. He thinks the cows “eat and drink well without worries” and “are not afraid” even when it rains. His colleague tells him “if cows see a piece of wet land during the drought, they will try their best to dig into it.” This is a metaphor – Du Jun is actually going through a drought himself, accompanied by guilt and conflict, longing for freedom from the fear and pain he experiences in the absurd social reality.

Edited by Yael Shuv