'The Taste of Youth': Filmart/HKIFF Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
A heartbreaking and revealing look at contemporary Hong Kong.

Indie filmmaker Cheung King Wai gives voice to members of a youth choir and takes a generational pulse in his latest documentary.

Ten-year-olds with more to do in a day than most adults and anxious parents hoping to prepare their children for the world are just the starting point for Golden Horse-winning short filmmaker and documentarian Cheung King Wai’s bleak but revealing The Taste of Youth. With Hong Kong making headlines worldwide the way it hasn’t since the handover, the pic and its timely, thought-provoking subjects and subject matter will be catnip for documentary festivals, particularly in Asia where the content will be familiar, as well as broad spectrum events, and should find a place on informational and/or education television. Distribution via download is a no-brainer.

Following nine youths — ranging from pre-teen to just before high school graduation — preparing to perform the protest stalwart “Ode to Joy,” Taste was inspired by the October 2014 Umbrella Movement and went into production with an eye, or ear, toward taking the emotional temperature of Hong Kong’s youth in the wake of that divisive event. Chatting with overworked 10-year-olds on the low end, six others aged up to 16, with a 24-year-old professional volunteer as the outlier, this otherwise standard talking-heads doc is elevated by currency and a bald-faced honesty that’s rarely seen outside more traditional “issue” films (teen pregnancy, drug abuse and so on). It’s also heartbreaking, depending on one’s definition of the word.

Belying the image of Hong Kong kids (and teens anywhere) as shallow, entitled, uninformed brats who spend all day obsessing over their Facebook status and bullying others anonymously on Twitter, Taste of Youth is a sober exploration of this generation’s hopes, dreams and fears for themselves and for Hong Kong. As part of an unofficial theme running through this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival — about the city’s turbulent present and murky future — the film reveals an alternative, often overlooked perspective.

The subjects in Cheung’s portrait are rich kids, they’re estate kids, they come from varying types of schools (Catholic, Christian, public) and the director coaxes each to reveal more than they perhaps expected to. That’s not to say Cheung’s interviews feel manipulative or like he’s taking advantage of anyone; they are simply full of observations that can only be described with the adage, “From the mouths of babes.” Among the participants are: 16-year-old Vicky, typically caught between her parents’ expectations and a desire to try and forge her own future as a singer; the browbeaten and hopeless 13-year-old Hoi-Ting, a constant target of ridicule because of her weight; 16-year-old Mainland transplant Hua, who still feels like a stranger in Hong Kong a decade on; and Nicole, a bubbly, budding actress who has to work at being bubbly. Nicole's most memorable comment comes when she waxes philosophical about how “even slaves have the freedom to look at the sky.” (She’s 10.)

Taste of Youth shines when it leave the kids alone to contemplate their answers and bounce off their parents, many of whom are interviewed as well. The concept of a generation gap is nothing new, but the gaping chasm between parents and child here is startling, the shifting values more intense than previously realized. Also startling is the ingrained and overwhelming acceptance of obligation and responsibility that trumps youth on display; these kids are already going through the proverbial motions and they’re not even out of high school.

In addition to the personal, the political rears its head, as seen in 16-year-old Angel’s dilemma as school prefect where she’s forced to choose between enforcing the rules and speaking on behalf of the student body. The film’s most awkward moment comes when Hua explains precisely the status his childhood friend from the Mainland would have in Hong Kong to said friend. It’s a grace note on a running motif that paints most of the kids as demoralized over Hong Kong itself — either explicitly or implicitly.

Technical specs are functional rather than flashy, but get the job done appropriately given the subject matter.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production company: Beautiful Productions
Director: Cheung King Wai
Producers: Yolanda Chiu, James Mok
Directors of photography:
Shermen Leung Shu-moon, Erin Lo, Nicole Chan Wai-yee
Nicky Tse Siu-pong, Shermen Leung Shu-moon, Cheung King Wai
Music: Hidemi
World sales:
Beautiful Productions

In Cantonese

Not rated, 80 minutes

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