Saturday, April 8, 2017

Two terrific young actresses and a bittersweet friendship are at the heart of Sisterhood (film review)

The poster for the movie whose Chinese title
translates into English as "Massage Girl"

Sisterhood (Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan, 2016)
-- Tracy Choi, director and co-editor (with Tina Baz)
-- Starring: Gigi Leung, Fish Liew, Jennifer Yu
Two of the actresses in this female-centric drama that's directed by a woman (first-time helmer Tracy Choi) and has a script written by another woman (Hong Kong movie veteran Au Kin Yee) are in the running for honors at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards (whose awards ceremony will take place tomorrow evening).  Debut-making actress Jennifer Yu has been nominated for the Best Newcomer Award while Malaysian thespian Fish Liew is competing in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

In contrast, their more established co-stars -- not only first-billed Gigi Leung but also supporting cast members Stephanie Che and Teresa Mak -- have not garnered any nominations.  And this is only fair since, even while these women were a welcome presence in Sisterhood, the fact of the matter is that it's Fish Liew and Jennifer Yu's parts and performances that are at the very heart of this affecting film.

Set in both the present day and the late 1990s, Sisterhood begins with a female innkeeper in Taiwan coming across a notice in the newspaper about the death in Macau of a woman who used to be her best friend but she had been long estranged from.  After Sei (played in older form by Gigi Leung) returns to the former Portuguese enclave for the first time in 15 years ago and does such as reunite with two former massage parlor colleagues cum honorary "sisters" (essayed by Stephanie Che and Teresa Mak) as well as look for her erstwhile best pal's now grown-up son, the audience is shown -- primarily by way of a series of extended flashbacks -- how the young Sei (played by Fish Liew) and more worldly Ling (portrayed by Jennifer Yu) formed their friendship, and how close it actually got to be.   

Like her film's protagonist, director Tracy Choi was born in Macau and spent time in Taiwan.  Consequently, she is able to both capture on film what the Macau of yore felt like and also how much the territory has recognizably changed in recent years.  In doing so, she serves reminders that her native land possessed a seedy underbelly even before its 1999 transfer of sovereignty from Portugal back to China but, also, was a place where people could enjoy simple pleasures such as hanging out at neighborhood eateries and singing karaoke with friends.    

After film school in Taiwan, Choi did postgraduate work at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.  But whereas its director (and co-editor) looks to have drawn upon Hong Kong film industry's still considerable pool of talent for the bulk of Sisterhood's crew along with cast, this Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan co-production has been given the sort of unhurried pacing that one associates more with the Taiwan film industry than that of Macau's sister Special Administrative Region.

From the viewpoint of someone who is a bigger fan of Hong Kong cinema than that of Taiwan, there are sections of this offering that can feel like they go on for too long.  On the other hand, other segments of this drama do benefit from the story being given sufficient room to develop and unfold like they do.  In particular, it's commendable how the bittersweet relationship between Sei (who grew up as an orphan) and Ling (who becomes a single mom) gets shown to grow so very naturally, and how their characters are accorded time to evolve, mature and just plain breathe. 

In addition, Sisterhood contains a number of quite lovely feeling and looking scenes that it's good to have had time to take in, really look around and appreciate.  And when the film ends, I found myself lingering in the cinema as the end credits rolled and final song played rather than hurrying out the way that one is wont to do with movies that aren't able to deliver as much of an emotional impact and recognizable quality.  

My rating for this film: 8.0

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