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For better and for worse, the days of British rule in Hong Kong left an indelible mark on the city, chief among those making it one of the most diverse cities in China, and arguably Asia, but that’s not readily apparent if the local cinema is used as the primary metric for gauging social matters. Stories Forlorn, a familiar mix of coming-of-age drama and urban thriller, wades into just those unseen diverse waters for a story that dispels the notion of privileged white youth in Hong Kong. As the story swirls around a group of randomly connected teens, drug dealers and the newly disenfranchised, all stuck in personal holding patterns in a city in flux, it’s a slice of the other side of Hong Kong life.
Set during the days leading up to the Handover in 1997 (but never overwhelmed by that watershed), what Stories Forlorn lacks in professional polish (some of the performances can be creaky at times; there are a few sound dead zones) it more than makes up for with a fresh, eye-opening voice and a perspective rarely, if ever, examined in Hong Kong cinema, independent or otherwise. Told from the point of view of a third culture kid — who, like writer-directors Jason Sankey and Uri L. Schwarz, is a non-Chinese, native born Hong Konger — the film turns its gaze on one of the city’s marginalized underclasses, just one that isn’t traditionally disadvantaged. Stories Forlorn could see a healthy life on the festival circuit, particularly in Asian-themed events where its subject matter will stand out.
The film begins at the end of the high school year, with summer just heating up and the switch from U.K. to Chinese rule looming on the horizon. Budding writer — and the film’s philosophical narrator — Tom (first-timer Zac Dawson) and his best mate Dave (Jason Bradley, saddled with the more rote bad boy role) make plans for a big summer, neither sure if they’ll even be in their hometown the next year. Looking to make some quick cash, Dave wangles Tom into a drug-dealing scheme, which leads them to a partnership of sorts with junkie dealer Daniel (Oliver Williams, looking fresh off the set of The Crow) who has a history with Tom and his dead brother. But it’s Daniel’s boss, Terence (Jason Tobin, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, doubling as a producer), who’s the real cause for concern. He wants Dave to tap the lucrative gwaijai — “rich” expat kids — market in order to impress his uncle, the vaguely psychotic George (Kirt Kishita).
There’s really nothing innovative or surprising about Sankey and Schwarz’s narrative choices from this point on; the more conventional plot points include the reckless friend, an uncontrolled spiral into criminality and drug abuse, first love and a hooker with a heart of gold. But no one’s ever said a familiar story can’t be a good one. One of Stories Forlorn’s strengths is its dedication to treating non-Chinese Hong Kongers and mixed heritage characters as people rather than tokens or using them as shorthand for trouble. Sankey and Schwarz clearly understand this world, and are very careful to inject a thread of veracity into the dialogue and the images, which both lend the film a strong sense of time and place. Cinematographers Andreas Thalhammer and Han Xiaosu’s visuals deftly exploit Sankey and Schwarz’s eye for the urban landscape. At points the film has a nearly tangible quality in scenes unfolding in the city’s hidden corners and otherwise overlooked spaces.
Though a whiff of the glamorous young gangster movies of the 1980s that caused such a stir lingers in Stories Forlorn (there’s a subtle and affecting “brotherly” sacrifice near the end), it’s more of a shout-out to the directors’ youths than a real influence. The film transits more in the ordinary social underbelly than in the neon glitz of triad gunplay. Tom (and in one segment that deserved a bit more exploration, his mother) is clearly still affected by his brother’s death five years earlier, as is Daniel. Tom and Dave are both anxious about the future, which in 1997 was on everyone’s mind. The aforementioned golden-hearted hooker, Mei (Masson Ge Pei-qi, in a nicely understated turn) has her own tragic backstory of course, but it’s not overplayed or so outrageous as to detract from the film’s overall sense of this being a Hong Kong of trepidation and aimlessness. There’s no happy ending with easy answers. In fact, there’s no ending at all, and that’s a good thing. It leaves Stories Forlorn on an indefinite, suitably unbalanced note. If anything rings false, it’s the budding romance between the naive Tom and worldly, wounded Mei. That and the fact that a 16-year-old native has yet to master the mechanics of chopsticks.
Production: Fluxform Entertainment
Cast: Zac Dawson, Jason Bradley, Masson Ge Pei-qi, Oliver Williams, Jason Tobin, Kirt Kishita, Glen Chin
Directors-screenwriters: Jason Sankey, Uri L. Schwarz
Producer: Jason Tobin
Production designer: Carey Rothman
Editor: Bettina Enigl
Music: Adrian Sieber
No rating, 85 minutes
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