A Complicated Story: Hong Kong Review

A Complicated Story Still H
Timely and thought-provoking drama starts strong and runs off the rails in a misguided second half.

Education and industry veterans join forces for the inaugural feature from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts' film program.

A mainland university student in Hong Kong in dire need of money quickly accepts a lucrative offer from a wealthy couple to act as a surrogate mother in A Complicated Story, a title that does justice to the film in more ways than one. First time feature filmmaker Kiwi Chow has turned in a very technically polished student film, made on the strength of collaboration between industry heavyweights Milkyway Image and Edko Films (executive producers Johnnie To and Bill Kong’s companies) and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ film production program (nine other master’s students worked on the film).

The professional contributions to Chow’s film are obvious and the effort to prop up the local industry and train the next generation of filmmakers is a noble cause. However, it begs the question as to whether there were too many cooks spoiling the broth. A Complicated Story begins as one film and ends as something quite different, and a viewer might wonder what kind of narrative decisions Chow would have made left to his own devices. Nonetheless, the timely and divisive subject matter should generate festival interest overseas, and the presence of superstar Jacky Cheung could secure the film a general release in Asia-Pacific.

PHOTOS: Hong Kong Filmart: The Best of the Worst One-Sheets

We first meet mainland university student Yazi (Zhu Zhiying) during an interview with power lawyer Kammy (Stephanie Che) that will determine if she’s a suitable surrogacy candidate for a local, and anonymous, power couple. Though she’s clearly got some pointed questions, Yazi’s need to pay for her sick brother’s surgery trumps any misgivings, and she agrees to sign on the dotted line and enter into a strict and binding contract. She’s set up in a beautiful home (Hong Kong is rarely made to look this lushly idyllic) and chauffeured to and from elite doctor appointments, but the rug is pulled out from under her in her eighth week: The wife of the mystery couple has decided to terminate the contract -- and thus the pregnancy. Yazi has no legal leg on which to stand, but knowing crucial information is being kept from her, she asserts her moral authority and goes into hiding. She’s safely secluded in a vaguely hippie-feminist island village and tended to by Gipsy (the always engaging Deanie Ip) when Yuk (Cheung), the father, finds her and exerts his parental rights.

That first act is a complete film in itself. For almost an hour Chow lays the groundwork for a larger discussion, with little moments that seem minor forming the basis of a more complex picture. Yuk isn’t a deadbeat dad unwilling to unable to care for his children. His appearance asks, as a once unknowing participant, if he has a right to demand custody or access to his kids. Is it acceptable for Yazi to breach her contract because of personal conviction? Are her opinions more valuable because she’s a surrogate and not a gestational carrier? Are developing world women being exploited by choosing to use their wombs for financial gain? To this point Complicated is a thoughtful and somewhat challenging exploration of the ethics and morality of an increasingly common modern family planning choice. But then Yuk decides to solve the problem by courting Yazi and starting a new, wholesome nuclear family with her.

PHOTOS: China Box Office: 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time

The seeds of soap opera are scattered earlier in the film, but the camera is so focused on the moral and legal quagmire that they’re easily dismissed. However, the second act shifts gears and brings Yuk’s divorce from his princess movie star wife, Yazi’s angry boyfriend Chun-ming and Kammy’s burgeoning feelings for Yazi (really, they went down the closet lesbian path) into the picture, reconfiguring the film as an overwrought romantic melodrama. It nearly renders the first, more engrossing half of the film nearly irrelevant. There’s even a tabloid scandal and a hate crime. This is a different movie.

It’s unclear how faithful Chow and his team of writers, Felix Tsang, Isis Tao and Shu Kei, were to Yi Shu’s novel, but given the density of the film’s first act a lot could have been jettisoned and still left enough material for a complete narrative. Yazi’s time with Gipsy, Kammy’s (non-romantic) companionship, and the contrast between the treatment Yazi receives from her contractual, old-school male doctor and that from the women’s clinic she seeks herself would have dovetailed beautifully with the main story. The story also lets Zhu down. For most of the time she is empathetic and dignified as a young woman at a major crossroads, but as the romance develops she’s compelled to a level of obstinacy Yazi had never displayed. Her motivations become muddled and the reordering of her worldview and perception of self is abstract. The film is by no means a failure: Chow has a strong sense of story and pacing, and he gets great support from the entire cast. Che in particular lends Kammy a steely, sadly misdirected sense of honor that clashes with her sense of duty, and Cheung is always welcome on the screen. He’s well cast here as what can best be described a one-percenter with a 99-percenter’s soul. A Complicated Story just didn’t need to be as complicated as it is.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival

Producers: Shu Kei, Ding Yuin-shan
Director: Kiwi Chow
Cast: Zhu Zhiying, Jacky Cheung, Stephanie Che, Ziyi, Dennie Ip, Lo Hoi-pang, John Shum
Screenwriters: Shu Kei, Felix Tsang, Isis Tao, Kiwi Chow, based on the novel by Yi Shu
Executive Producers: Bill Kong, Johnnie To
Director of Photography: Zhang Yin
Editor: Chak Hoi-ling

No rating, 107 minutes