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In the wake of the rising number of murders within Hong Kong’s sex trade industry and the tabloid-ready 2014 double homicide by a British banker, writer-director Philip Yung’s Port of Call couldn’t be more au courant if it tried. At a time when the safety and rights of sex workers — or lack thereof — are increasingly being called into question, the film, based on another gruesome, headline-grabbing story from five years ago, joins other films by the industry’s independent fringe on the subject: Herman Yau’s Whispers and Moans and Kenneth Bi’s Girl$. Yung, however, opts out of easy sensationalism (for the most part) and takes a more muted, deliberate approach to the story of a 16-year-old Hunan girl living in Hong Kong who stumbles into prostitution and the journeyman cop who investigates her murder.
Making its world premiere closing out HKIFF, this version of Port of Call — notably produced with no Mainland financing at all — is a director’s cut, and it shows. Yung’s first feature, Glamorous Youth, was an astute portrait of marginalized teens and twentysomethings that suffered only for its rambling, unfocused nature. His sophomore effort, May We Chat, was incendiary and foul-mouthed, but at roughly 100 minutes it seemed more compact and on point. Here, he takes something of a step back with his director’s cut, but what Yung and distributor Mei Ah will settle on for wide release is anybody’s guess. As it stands, Port of Call is a meandering meditative mystery that prefers contemplation to action; with some editing it could be a tight, serviceable crime thriller. The sweet spot would be somewhere in between, and if it can be found, the combination of star Aaron Kwok and the familiar subject matter should give the film a solid life at home in Hong Kong. It could also do moderate business in Asia-Pacific, at specialty festivals and in niche markets internationally, again on the strength of Kwok’s status.
Port of Call begins with high school student Jiamei (Jessie Li in a strong debut) becoming disillusioned with and isolated from her life in Hong Kong in 2009. In 2010, Detective Chong (Kwok) and his partner Smoky (Patrick Tam, Two Thumbs Up) begin an investigation into the events surrounding the dismembered, headless corpse of a young woman in a tenement house. Their prime suspect is moody, short-fused meat deliveryman Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning), a lonely outsider who relies on prostitutes for company. As Chong digs into the crime, he gets more and more fixated on how Jiamei found herself in a position that threatened her life and who she really was. It’s a simple story, and the whodunit element is wrapped up by the midway point, when Ting walks into the police station to turn himself in.
Yung deflates the police procedural balloon right out of the gate by creating a hero who’s less hot-headed maverick (no one tells Chong he’s suspended or that he’s costing the department millions) and more workmanlike professional that gets a little obsessed with a case. He’s scruffy, his clothes look like they fit his salary, he gets on with his co-workers. By the same token, there’s a great deal of detail worked into the investigation (via flashback) about Jiamei. Very often the (usually female) victims of horrific crimes in thrillers are sketches at best, utterly silent at worst. Yung at least makes an effort to give Jiamei a face and make her real on some level. The narrative is constructed in such a way as to have the two threads meet in the middle: the more Chong uncovers about Jiamei, the closer her story comes to the “present” and Ting’s confession. It’s been done before but it works in Port of Call, and the film’s depressed and vaguely oppressive tone and visuals realize a world populated by aimless, entitled, lazy, frustrated and anxious people without ever judging them.
Yung has been down this path before. His previous films also turned the spotlight on a generation that finds itself trapped between malaise and rage and doesn’t quite know how to channel that energy. The difference here is that Yung includes Chong and Jiamei’s mother, May (Elaine Jin, People’s Hero, Beijing Love Story), and their equally frustrated points of view. That said, by expanding his scope, Yung loses control a few times, chiefly with a C-story revolving around Chong and his daughter that wouldn’t be missed if it were excised.
Port of Call is meticulously produced and is technically Yung’s best, with cinematography by Wong Kar-wai regular Christopher Doyle (Invisible Waves) giving the film a gauzy, opaque veneer that perfectly visualizes the unfathomable, bottled-up emotions and motivations of Jiamei, Ting and Chong. Doyle’s trademark dreamy unreality shines when Chong has a nightmare wherein he’s unable to stop Ting’s butchery, and in Ting’s confession that slips from storytelling to re-creation in cold two-tone. The film’s not perfect; it’s too long, whiplashes tonally on more than one occasion and has a bizarre happy ending that feels out of place. Yung could have delved deeper into the peripheral issues the central murder raises that extend beyond the sex trade and displacement — like issues of apathy and hopelessness among the city’s youth and Mainland friction. Nonetheless it’s a current, purely Hong Kong voice from a filmmaker shaping up to be one of the few Hong Kong has.
Production company: Golden Gate Productions
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Elaine Jin, Patrick Tam, Jessie Li, Michael Ning, Jackie Cai, Hatou Yeung, Eddie Li, Don Li, Maggie Shiu, Eddie Chan
Director-Screenwriter: Philip Yung
Producer: Julia Chu
Executive producer: Li Kuo-Hsing
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Cyrus Ho
Costume designer: Ivy Chan
Editor: Philip Yung, Chu Ka-yat
Music: Tu Du-chih
World sales: Mei Ah Entertainment Group
No rating, 121 minutes
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