Stanley Kwan has made a career out of turning a spotlight on the marginalized and giving a voice to the voiceless. One of Hong Kong’s few out gay filmmakers, Kwan has forged a career as something like the industry’s own Almodovar, with a body of work heavy with fully formed women and LGBT characters navigating various emotional quagmires, if not quite as outré as his Spanish counterpart. After a six-year break spent producing, Kwan returns with First Night Nerves, a vaguely disjointed and delicately cheeky theater world drama that serves as a mirror for its central actors as well as for Hong Kong’s flailing film industry.
Kwan’s name above the title and the relative star power of leads Sammi Cheng and Gigi Leung will generate respectable business at home and regionally, and as imperfect as the movie may be, specialty festivals of all stripes will likely find a lot to recommend First Night Nerves. Cinematographer Wang Boxue’s fluid hand-held photography and long takes will work just as well on the small screen, making streaming services a viable option.
The story tracks the behind-the-scenes drama unfolding in the seven days leading up to opening night of Two Sisters, a play starring two actresses from different star strata, but pulls a disparate group of women together for some almost campy hi-jinks (the title is roughly “eight women, one stage”). Xiuling (Sammi Cheng, in a role that would have likely once gone to Anita Mui judging from all the meta Rouge references), is a respected theater actor, renowned equally for her craft as for her Garbo-esque reclusiveness; she’s also been tabloid fodder for the death of her philandering, swindling husband in a plane crash. The younger, ingénue-type TV star, Yuwen (Gigi Leung, brilliantly passive aggressive) is in the play as a calculated career move designed to inject some credibility into her work.
As with any project involving two successful women, they’re pitted against each other, with the resentment played up in the media. To be fair, there’s no love lost between them, and Yuwen’s affluent princess antics around the suddenly broke Xiuling don’t help, but they’re hardly clawing at each other. Overseeing the production is prominent transgender director An Ouyang (Kam Kwok-leung) — whose fragile heart can’t take too much drama — and producer Cong (Angie Chiu), Xiuling’s estranged sister-in-law who’s mounting the show to help her out financially. Or so go the rumors.
While taking cues from theater world classic All About Eve and his own female-led Women, Kwan has concocted an oddball of a movie; one minute a frothy, campy delight, the next an overly-sentimental slog. Nonetheless, First Night Nerves leaves a unique impression: On one side is its dual-track examination of female friendship and competitiveness that runs in step with the characters’ progress in the play-within-the-movie. On the other side is an itemized tirade (in a polite, Kwan way) of the Mainland pressure, dearth of talent, sound bite culture and unwavering eye on the bottom line blighting art in Hong Kong. Kwan and writer Jimmy Ngai weave the two threads into a larger portrait of the contemporary city. The constant throwaway lines that illustrate the casual homophobia of the industry and the world beyond it never register as preachy. Similarly the pair cut down archetypes every chance they get when they’re not poking fun at them. An pitches a couple of drama school artistic fits (transphobic or transgressive?), and when the stars’ diva behavior gets the better of Cong she storms out of the room and immediately books four hours in a spa. Kwan is often funnier than he is given credit for, and First Night Nerves is as lighthearted as he’s ever been. This is not a screed.
Leung, who’s rarely been this easily charming, and Cheng have strong support for their dueling diva A plot, most poignantly in the emerging friendship between their personal assistants. Yuwen’s right hand Yilian (Catherine Chau) humanizes the entitled star, and when she lays out the facts of why she sticks around to Xiuling’s aide, Nini (Qi Xi), it’s a sweet moment of recognizable solidarity between them. For a single mother who speaks one language with limited skills, Yilian is resigned to her place in the world, and she’s happy to give Yuwen the behind-closed-doors support she needs in exchange for her own comfort. Nini, the perpetual apprentice, takes a moment to acknowledge her own comparative privilege, and better still acknowledges her rush to judgment. It’s an unassuming exchange that could easily be overlooked but one that Kwan manages to infuse with his typical empathy, distilling the film’s themes into one short scene. And Bai Baihe (Monster Hunt) as lesbian Fu Sha, crushing on Xiuling as her parents try to buy her a suitable husband (in a subplot taken, honest to god, from local headlines), toggles between sexy and confident, and apprehensive and hopeful with grace.
A hyper-chirpy ending puts a fantastical icing on the First Night Nerves cake that could well be a first for Kwan. While it’s nice to see Yuwen and Xiuling make peace in a comfortable, lived in moment looking at the harbor, and the rest of the characters find their own kind of happy, the side effect is losing some of the dramatic heft from earlier in the film. Nerves would have been well served by being a bit nervier and heading right over the top.
Production company: Arena Productions Limited, Phoenix Legend Films Co.
Cast: Sammi Cheng, Gigi Leung, Bai Baihe, Angie Chiu, Qi Xi, Catherine Chau, Kiki Sheung, Kam Kwok-leung
Director: Stanley Kwan
Screenwriter: Jimmy Ngai
Producer: Katie Kwan, Zhang Qun, Wu Xinxin
Executive producer: Zhao Ye, Xu Zhen, Liu Rong, Chen Liwei, Wang Ying
Director of photography: Wang Boxue
Production designer: Man Lim-chung
Costume designer: Tsang Ka-pik
Editor: William Chang, Shirley Yip
Music: Yu Yat-yiu, Edgar Hung
World sales: Golden Scene
In Cantonese and Putonghua
No rating, 100 minutes