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Writer-director Flora Lau’s debut feature Bends is a slow-moving but ultimately affecting mood piece about two people at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, each navigating difficult crossroads. Distinguished by understated lead performances from Carina Lau and Chen Kun, and by the coolly elegant visuals of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, this is a quiet film that reflects in human terms the uneasy symbiosis of Hong Kong with mainland China.
The action takes place on either side of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Anna Li (Lau) is a stylish housewife who has put her humble roots behind her, living in luxury since marrying a powerful businessman. With her daughter away at boarding school, she spends her time lunching with other well-heeled wives or organizing charity events. But the precariousness of that existence is exposed when her husband disappears under a cloud, unhelpfully canceling her credit cards.
Across the border in a shabby Shenzhen housing block, Anna’s driver Fai (Chen) faces a dilemma as his pregnant wife Ting (Tian Yuan) nears the birth of their second child. Rather than risk heavy fines for violating China’s One-Child Policy, Ting is forced to hide in the apartment out of sight of their neighbors, while Fai struggles to find financial and logistic solutions to get his wife across to Hong Kong and into one of the overbooked maternity hospitals.
Director Lau’s storytelling sense sometimes lacks clarity, making the audience do more guesswork than perhaps is necessary. But the parallel situations of the two protagonists are effectively balanced, each of them intuiting something of the other’s distress without ever articulating it.
As Ting turns sullen with cabin fever, Fai grows more desperate. He tries his luck at gambling and then starts selling off parts from his employer’s Mercedes, substituting them with cheap replacements. Anna remains in denial, hiring a feng shui consultant to rearrange the furniture in the hope that it will bring order to her house. Gradually, she is forced to face reality and begin cashing in her valuables.
The scenario could easily have turned schematic, but the director handles it with delicacy and sensitivity, and her two main actors convey a lot in performances with remarkably few outward displays of emotion. The ever-magnetic Carina Lau is particularly lovely. Anna puts a brave face on things in her chic dresses and expensive accessories, but her designer shades can’t mask the fear and humiliation in her eyes as the façade crumbles. The ending, however, suggests resilience and reawakening.
While it bears little resemblance in tone or subject matter to his work, Bends is perhaps influenced by Wong Kar-wai in its languorous rhythms and in the prowling grace of Doyle’s crisp camerawork. A prominent credit thanking Wong’s regular production designer William Chang indicates that he likely had a hand in shaping the look of the film, with its sharp distinctions between the two worlds.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Carina Lau, Chen Kun, Tian Yuan
Production companies: Shadow Puppet Productions, Film Development Fund of Hong Kong, in association with A Priori Image, Bago Pictures, Love Streams Agnes B. Productions, Post Production Office, Tomson International Entertainment Distribution
Director-screenwriter: Flora Lau
Producers: Nansun Shi, Yu Tsang, Melissa Lee, Ken Hui
Executive producer: Albert Tong
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Jean Tsoi
Music: Patrick Jonsson
Costume designer: Miriam Chan
Editors: Flora Lau, Alexis Dos Santos, Aq Lee
Sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong
No rating, 97 minutes.
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