Friday, March 28, 2014

Aberdeen outside the HKIFF, and In the Heat of the Sun at the fest (film reviews)

Aberdeen director Pang Ho-cheung and stars Miriam Yeung,
Gigi Leung and Louis Koo at the Hong Kong International Film 
Festival's opening press conference last month

In the Heat of the Sun helmer -- and superstar actor --
Jiang Wen (left) made a surprise appearance at the
film's screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

It's only Friday afternoon but I've already viewed five films this week!  For many film fans, this is par for the course when something like the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is on.  But as it so happens, I've thus far only attended two official 2014 HKIFF screenings!  Still, since two of the other three films I've viewed this week are part of the programme of Hong Kong's largest cultural -- not just film -- event, I'm going to include them in my HKIFF coverage which begins with this entry...

Aberdeen (Hong Kong, 2014)
- From the Opening Films program
- Pang Ho Cheung, director
- Starring Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, Miriam Yeung, Eric Tsang, Lee Man Kwai, Ng Man Tat, Carrie Ng

One of two opening films at this year's HKIFF, Pang Ho Cheung's Aberdeen also looks to have been the most highly anticipated of the fest's offerings -- what with the online tickets for its one HKIFF screening having sold out in 8 minutes despite the screening venue being the cavernous over 1,000 seater Grand Theatre of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre!  

Having been unsuccessful in getting one of those tickets myself, I was pretty ecstatic  to get access to the private screening at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre that was scheduled to begin one and a quarter hours before the film officially had its world premiere over on the other side of Victoria Harbour. And even after the screening was delayed by around 45 minutes due to our having to wait for the director and certain of the cast members to appear and briefly comment on the movie, I still approached Pang's 13th directorial effort in a positive -- though admittedly less hyped up -- frame of mind.

An ensemble piece with three-dimensional characters, Aberdeen has as intriguing mix of industry veterans, contemporary stars and one child actress making her film debut in its cast. Ng Man Tat plays the family patriarch -- a fisherman turned Taoist priest, and widower whose companion of choice these days is a nightclub hostess (Carrie Ng) who is less sleazy or glamorous than warmly maternal. 

Son Tao (Louis Koo) is a cram-school tutor with a model-actress wife named Ceci (Gigi Leung) and a cute -- but definitely not pretty -- young daughter they affectionately call Piggy (Lee Man Kwai). Tao's elder sister, Ching (Miriam Yeung), is a guide at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence over in Shau Kei Wan and the wife of radiologist (Eric Tsang) who is having an affair with a nurse colleague (the un-retired Dada Chen), yet comes across as still caring for his wife.
Best known as a maker of comedies (including his first -- and, to my mind -- still best film You Shoot, I Shoot, and the infamous Vulgaria), Pang generates a few laughs in his latest work but there's no mistaking that he's primarily aimed for drama and depth with this multi-stranded story of a multi-generational family who have their roots in the part of Hong Kong that share its English name with a Scottish city. Considerably more low-key than the vast majority of director's previous works, the film's mantra of "inhale... hold your breath... exhale" initially comes across as a joke but turns out to encapsulate a philosophical outlook. 

If truth be told, the film's message of the past having an effect on one's present and future is not exactly new.  But it says quite a bit that it's come from a director who's long been seen both as an enfant terrible and one of those who is contemporary Hong Kong cinema's most influential voices.  Also notable is how this Hong Kong production looks inward (as well as to the past) rather than to, say, the Mainland in terms of fingering problems that beset individuals but also ways for prevailing and remaining hopeful for a better tomorrow.

My rating for this film: 8.0 (up from my initial 7.5 after some thought!)

In the Heat of the Sun (Mainland China, 1994)
- Part of the Jiang Wen: Directing History program
- Jiang Wen, director
- Starring Xia Yu, Ning Jing, Tao Hong

The directorial debut of the amazing Jiang Wen (whose Devils on the Doorstep I viewed at a past HKIFF) is officially a Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production but with a story that's predominantly set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, it comes across as a distinctly Mainland Chinese effort.  The winner of a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for its then 16-year-old lead (Xia Yu holds the record for being the youngest ever Best Actor winner at Venice), In the Heat of the Sun also was the first Mainland film to triumph at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards.     

Before the screening began, the director-actor-writer (who served as the story's narrator as well as helmed and scripted the work) appeared on stage to talk a bit about the film.  Joking at the thundering applause he received, Jiang said he hoped that people would still want to applaud him after they had seen his 1994 work.  At the same time, it was obvious that he also knows how popular this movie is -- seeing as he also joked that those who would be seeing the now 20-year-old film for the first time ever that evening probably were under 19 years of age!

Partially based on a novel by writer-director-actor Wang Shuo entitled Wild Beast and on Jiang's own memories of that time in history, In the Heat of the Sun is a coming-of-age tale that's told from the perspective of a teenaged boy known as Monkey (Xia Yu, selected for the role in part because he bears a physical resemblance to Jiang!).  The son of a soldier who's frequently away, he spends a sweltering summer running almost wild in a Beijing with lots of deserted streets, breaking into residences at will (with a skeleton key he fashioned) but never taking anything.

High spirited and often mischievous, Monkey can seem like a modern version of Sun Wukong. Ditto re his liking to spend time in the company of kindred-spirited friends -- one of whom, Yu Bei-pei (Tao Hong), is, surprisingly, a pretty female who's generally treated as a platonic buddy by the boys -- as well as exploring out on his own.    

But after he first comes across a photograph of Mi Lan (Ning Jing) in an apartment he's broken into, then makes her acquaintance, Monkey's world and world view would never be the same again.  Such is the impact of a first love that it affects his life more than any actual Cultural Revolution event or even the suicide of his "class enemy" maternal grandfather.

Almost needless to say, In the Heat of the Sun is unlike any other Cultural Revolution-era film I've seen in terms of its treatment of that event but, also, its mood.  Care-free and dream-like in parts, it most certainly is an overly-romanticized view of a period in China's history that was turbulent and nightmarish for many despite not being without some bittersweet notes.

It's worth bearing in mind though that the film's makers make clear at various points in the work that its story is being told from the viewpoint of a teenager whose worldview doesn't encompass much beyond one's friendship and family circle -- and one whose memory is shown to be fallible at that.  So rather than read too much into In the Heat of the Sun politically, perhaps it's best to see it more as giving proof to the idea that life really can go on -- and that people can fall in (and out of) love -- even during times that history remembers more for the deaths that took place then, rather than the growing up and romances that also did.

My rating for the film: 8.0


Brian Naas said...

Always great to see you writing about film again. How many films do you hope to see this time around at the HKIFF?

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Glad to see you commenting on this blog!

I'm regularly writing about film -- just not on this blog! Re the HKIFF: I'm thinking around 15... the numbers change by the day. ;)

Samson said...

Great reviews, YTSL! Keep them coming! By the way, I remember seeing In The Heat OF The Sun in the 90s and thinking that Xia Yu looked like Jiang Wen's son or brother!

Bill said...

Hi Yvonne,

I enjoyed these reviews from the HKIFF, especially since it will probably be a long time before, if ever, they're given a release for those of us stuck here in North America. An 8 from you is a solid rating, but I always watch out for a 9 or higher because I know it may be an exceptional film...

I'm hoping for a new release that Hong Kong can be proud of, say, something with the universal appeal of A Simple Life...

Reading online articles, I see that Hong Kong is keeping pace with state-of-the-art theatres to view films. The new Metroplex or Golden Harvest's The Sky sound interesting.


YTSL said...

Hi Samson --

Thanks! I hope to keep the reviews coming but am not sure when the next ones will be. Maybe later today, in between screenings... yep, am planning another two today! ;b

Hi Bill --

I'm pretty stingy with ratings -- and an 8 from me is already pretty respectable, I reckon! Re recent films from these parts that I gave a 9 to: Try "Beijing Love Story" -- yes, it's a mainland production but the best parts in there features Tony Leung Ka Fai and Carina Lau! :b

And ya, there have been a number of cinemas opening and getting revamped in Hong Kong. I just wish there was less talking in the cinemas though... ;(

Bill said...

Hi Yvonne,

I saw In the Heat of the Sun this week and enjoyed it. Thanks for recommending it. The prominent actor can also direct well(with the help of a very good cinematographer).

I also saw another Mainland movie I liked even more: The King of Masks, by the late Wu Tianming. It is a deceptively simply told tale with universal appeal.
The characters still linger in my mind, which is always a test of a quality film.


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

Glad you enjoyed your viewing of "In the Heat of the Sun". My favorite of the films that Jiang Wen has helmed is "Devils on the Doorstep". I also like "The Sun Also Rises" too -- it may not be perfect but its final 10 or 20 minutes has amazing visuals to my mind.

Re "The King of Masks": I remember it was one of those rare Mainland Chinese films easily available at non-Chinatown video stores in Philadelphia... I wonder how many more Chinese films are available in non-Chinatown video stores in Philadelphia these days.