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With her CV boasting of extensive traveling on the festival circuit and her films bearing titles such as Lonely Planet and Lovers on the Road, Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan‘s self-evident wanderlust is tempered by a attachment to her roots – and the Hong Kong director’s latest outing is perhaps the best illustration of these contradictory sentiments. Set in her home village in the city’s eastern rural outskirts, Flowing Stories charts the divergent paths undertaken by her neighbors, as the matriarch tells tales of the family’s shallow-sustenance beginnings and her descendants recounting their struggles of lives abroad.
A joint production between Tsang’s River Vision, Hong Kong Arts Center and the French outfit 24 Images, Flowing Stories is a Europe-trotting exercise which takes in stops at Edinburgh, London, Calais and Paris, and counts France’s CNC as a participating unit and veteran France-based filmmaker Mary Stephen (well-known for her long-running collaboration with Eric Rohmer in the 1990s and 2000s) on board as editor and associate producer.
These connections – in addition to the film’s sepia-tinged visions of rural Hong Kong its abundant melancholy tales about migratory lives – will help the film, which bowed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Apr. 1, in securing berths in migration-themed and/or independent festivals in the continent. An appearance at the Paris Film Festival is highly possible given its selection for the event’s project market in 2012.
While Flowing Stories is book ended by images and texts highlighting the imminent encroachment of life in the village of Ho Chung from powers further afield – the film begins with bulldozers turning river banks to wastelands, and an explanatory note at the film’s end states that a Shaolin temple will be constructed in the village in the next few years – Tsang’s film is more fixated about the past, of a rural paradise lost and closely-knit relationships dispersed across the globe.
Taking as its cue the once-a-decade ancestral ritual in 2010 – when diaspora descendants would return to the village to celebrate their roots – the filmmaker zeroes in on the Laus, the family who lives next door to her as she herself grew up in the village. The mother, Lau Yu Tam-kiu, speaks of her hardship of tending the fields, raising his children while her husband’s away working in France; her rendition of traditional Hakka songs and reminiscences which drift off towards the end are illustrations of a woman’s resilience in times of abject adversity, a shrugging self-deprecating dismissal of surmounted challenges.
Just as in real life, Mrs Lau provides the anchor to which Flowing Stories expand its reaches for tales from afar, from her children who have either traveled to Calais to work at the restaurant their father opened, or others who talked about having “drifted” abroad too as their spouses moved overseas for better opportunities in life. While most still profess the usual migrants’ hangover – homesickness, difficulties in adapting to new surroundings and so on – it’s perhaps more of a surprise to hear of their confessions of feeling half-Scottish, their nostalgia towards old visions of Calais, and their disapproval of newer Chinese migrants who refuse to integrate (“My home is in France here,” says the youngest son Lau Kam-wah, who actually studied and grew up in France.)
These complex sentiments of belonging and acclimatization are not exactly what Flowing Stories is designed to comb through, however. Given the multitude of personalities and threads at hand, Flowing Stories is a daunting task to keep coherent and in check – and Tsang’s proximity to the characters, their stories and their mutual love of the land here has become both an edge and a drawback. Having known these people for a long time, the filmmaker could easily get them to open up; but sometimes by being too up close, the over-familiarity breeds a sense of confusion of what the bigger picture is for indigenous villages and its former and current residents leading lives in 21st century Hong Kong or Europe.
There’s much nostalgia to feel for, and much beauty to behold, thanks to Jam Yau and Lee Kai-ho‘s camerawork which somehow finds parallels of European and Hong Kong village landscapes, and the similarities between the migrants’ European homes and the ones back at their ancestral village. Poetic moments, sure, but sometimes the sentimentality propels Tsang to become less of a chronicler and more the master of all this reverie. Her presence is not just on audio (with over-affective voiceovers) but visual (as she appears on screen greeting and mingling her elders and friends); compared to her previous three creations on her home village – the interactive online piece All About My Ho Chung, the short film The Life and Times of Ho Chung Village, and the fictional feature Big Blue Lake (with which she won the Best New Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards), the documentary of Flowing Stories is actually Tsang at her most personal.
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production Companies: River Vision Co Ltd, Hong Kong Arts Center, 24 Images
Director: Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan
Producer: Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, Teresa Kwong, Farid Rezkallah, Christophe Dorkeld
Executive Producer: Connie Lam
Directors of Photography: Jam Yau, Lee Kai-wo
Editor: Mary Stephen
Music: Masamichi Shigeno
Sound Designer: Benny Chan
International Sales: Hong Kong Arts Center
In Cantonese, Hakka and French
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