'Weeds on Fire': Hong Kong Review
Filmmaker Chan Chi-fat makes his debut by turning his lens on a little-known moment from Hong Kong’s sporting history.
"Athletics" is not among the words that come to mind when playing word association about Hong Kong, but regardless the classic sports-as-life metaphor gets the Hong Kong treatment in debuting director Chan Chi-fat’s Weeds on Fire, making its world premiere at HKIFF. Focusing on the city’s first youth league baseball team, one that eventually defeated regional heavyweights Japan in a Little League tournament, Weeds on Fire combines drama about growth and change with determined underdog action to satisfying if predicable ends. The film should fill the gap at home as counterprogramming, both in content and theme, and it could find a spot on the art house scene regionally. It could be a hard sell overseas where this kind of thing has been done before, and better, but it’s likely to find a place in Asia-focused fests with its light touch. As insulting as it may be to call a film sweet, Weeds on Fire is, and it will finds an audience because of it.
Weeds on Fire honors the conventions (some would say clichés) of the sports drama while adding a local spin that will be eye-opening to some, nostalgic for others. Essentially an inspiring teacher/coach coming-of-age story, all the boxes have been ticked, including slow-motion late-inning action, requisite training montages, rousing dugout speeches and goofy comedy as the team learns the game (Bill Buckner would feel their pain). It’s all very familiar — if you’ve seen any sports underdog movie you’ve seen Weeds on Fire — but Chan and co-writer Wong Chi-yeung bring an unpretentious, innocent edge to the film that makes it a welcome, optimistic novelty when most Hong Kong indies these days are all about a bleak future.
In 1984, Shatin was one of Hong Kong’s many planned new towns — kind of like a suburb — designed to absorb housing demand, and those new towns were a joke until the 2000s. While not quite a ghetto, they did have a dead-end atmosphere. Middle school Principal Lo (Liu Kai-chi) petitions the local school board to form a baseball team for his mid-tier students, though why is never quite clear. Despite being sure these kids are more likely to bash each other rather than balls with the gear, the board agrees and the Shatin Martins are born. The team’s pitcher-catcher duo is made up of childhood friends Tse Chi-lung (Lam Yiu-sing) behind the plate and Fan Chun-wai (Wu Tsz-tung) on the mound. The boys are largely opposites — Lung is retiring and lacking confidence, Wai is brash and cocky — but they become the heart of the team that seems hopeless. Lung in particular takes to the game and also takes pride in his accomplishments, however meager. As the Martins start to gel as a unit, Lung and Wai deal with personal issues that force them into altered worldviews (family collapse, unexpected teen pregnancy, the lure of crime) and grow apart. Lung’s decisions lead him to reflection and motivating victory, Wai’s to tragedy.
Completed on a budget of just $250,000, Weeds on Fire takes modest aim at recalling an uplifting slice of local history in the face of drastic change; the film starts with Lung's memories, recited over images of the remnants of the October 2014 Umbrella Movement, an event that has cast a long shadow over Hong Kong. Chan manages to imbue the action with a vivid sense of time and place, helped along by Day Tai’s suitably mid-’80s synth-pop score and Albert Poon’s production design. That said, it also bears most of the hallmarks of a first film: The language is pedestrian (though Chan does a nice job of framing the housing estate as a jail) and there can be too much visual drama, like the moment on the mound when Lung has his epiphany that goes on a bit too long. But there’s also an undeniable earnestness and genuine passion in the film, a heartfelt tone that never feels maudlin. Chan wants everyone to know about and revel in this one, surprising moment.
Young leads Lam and Wu are convincing in their teenaged camaraderie and underpin the story with a (mostly) believable emotional core that keeps viewers engaged despite knowing how the story is going to end. And veteran Liu brings credibility to nearly anything he does, here as the reticent administrator/coach desperate to light some kind of fire under his kids. Considering the budget, tech specs are strong, with Chan’s use of silence particularly effective.
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production company: Flash Glory Ltd.
Cast: Lam Yiu-sing, Wu Tsz-tung, Liu Kai-chi, Hedwig Tam, Poon Yiu-leung, Suen Lik-man, Shum Ka-kei, Wong Sze-man, Shui Jie, Jan Lamb
Director: Chan Chi-fat
Screenwriters: Chan Chi-fat, Wong Chi-yeung
Producers: Chan Hing-kai, O Sing-pui
Director of photography: O Sing-pui
Production designer: Albert Poon
Editor: Leung Cheuk-lam, Chan Chi-fat
Music: Day Tai
World sales: Flash Glory Ltd.
Not rated, 94 minutes