The kind of New Territories village that the protagonists
of Soursweet left for a new life in England
Soursweet (UK, 1988)
- Part of the Sylvia Chang: Filmmaker in Focus programme
- Mike Newell, dir.
- Starring: Sylvia Chang, Danny Dun, Jodi Long
Six years before he directed the very English hit comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell helmed the film adaptation of Hong Kong-born British Chinese novelist Timothy Mo's critically acclaimed Sour Sweet (note the slight difference in title between the movie and the book). Although it appears to have been little seen (with zero reviews and external links to reviews for its IMDB entry as of the time of writing), this drama has some really respectable names attached to it -- including novelist Ian McEwan as its scriptwriter and the multi-faceted Sylvia Chang heading its cast that also has character actor Soon Tek Oh in it.
The bittersweet tale of a family with roots in Hong Kong's New Territories whose members, like so many of their contemporaries, left their home village for what they hoped would be a better life in the UK several years before the Handover, the film begins with colorful scenes taking place in what appears to be a mix of locations -- in that I saw what appeared to be Starling Inlet and the narrow road along it but also a quick shot of the Sai Kung Peninsula's Sharp Peak!
Wherever the actual location, the locale in question is the setting for the wedding day of Lily (Sylvia Chang) and Chen (Danny Dun), the latter of whom also proudly announces at the wedding banquet that he's been given the right to reside in Britain. While I would have loved for the film to spend more time in Hong Kong, Soursweet soon moves to London and a time a few years on, with Chen now working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in the British capital city, Lily and her sister Mui (Jody Long) cleaning houses, and Chen and Lily now the parents of young Man Kee (Speedy Choo).
While Lily and Mui remain spirited, Chen now appears to be a pale shadow of his former self -- less confident and more socially withdrawn. Clearly out of his element, he also ends up sinking into debt as a result of a foolish attempt to make money quickly by gambling because -- how ironic and sad is this -- he needed funds to settle his father's gambling debt. Even more foolishly, he gets his and his father's debts settled by Triad "friends" (among them a senior gangster played by Soon Tek Oh) who then, of course, want him to do them a big favor: specifically, act as a regular drug courier for them.
Unwilling to do what they want, Chen moves with his family to an out of the way place where he hopes that the Triads will not track him down. Since they need to make money, they go ahead and open a Chinese takeaway -- which, against the odds, actually does get quite a bit of business. But as its title gives away, every bit of sweet success and happiness that occurs in this story gets "balanced" out with dollops of sour, even bitter, fruit.
I'm not sure if it was deliberate but Danny Dun -- at least in the film -- has one of those faces and built that fits the Western archetype of the physically unattractive Asian male. Similarly, Jody Long is -- to put it nicely -- perfect to play a plain homely female. But while Sylvia Chang has suffered from unkind comparisons -- with regards to her physical appearance -- to Chinese film contemporaries, notably Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, her beauty as well as star power shines through in, and illuminates much of, Soursweet.
Although she is first billed in the film, the drama actually focuses more on Dun's character than Chang's. At the same time, it's also true enough that Soursweet would be a lesser as well as much generally sadder film if Lily -- and also Mui and Man Kee -- hadn't figured in it. Consequently, the film owes a large portion of its palatability to Chang and Lily even while serving up doses of realistic tragedy in Chen's story.
My rating for this film: 8.0