Aberdeen (Heung Kong Tsai): Hong Kong Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
A visually imaginative but fuzzy family drama in need of the multi-layered nuances of the director's past work.

Pang Ho-cheung's Hong Kong International Film Festival opener charts the estrangement and ennui undermining relationships across three generations of a local family.

Don't look back in anger: that's the message which underlines Pang Ho-cheung's latest offering, in which three generations of a clan learn to forfeit past grievances and reconcile with what they have in the here and now.  Ditching the acerbic humor and cynicism which defines his past work, the Hong Kong director has delivered a fuzzy family drama which is surprisingly free of edgy mischief or abject irony; what's most startling about the film is how it defies its original title - Heung Kong Tsai is literally "Little Hong Kong" or "Hong Kong Boy" in Cantonese - by boasting the least cultural-specific narrative of all of Pang's work.

While certain Hong Kong-oriented cultural signifiers remain - the film is entirely in Cantonese, and doesn't have the now de rigueur token mainland Chinese character - Aberdeen's story is universal to the point of out of its time, with its protagonists' tribulations nearly disparate from the multitude of the city's social schisms which Pang himself have documented with sharp wit in the past. Not that the film is closed to multiple interpretations; but the general soft melancholy have taken the sting out of many a thread which could be developed into an analogy of Hong Kong's frailing (or failing) edges.

Beyond this emotional volte-face, Pang has maintained his vivid imagination. Aberdeen still boasts of many a visual coup de grace, from the formalist adaptations of Hong Kong's urban space into manifestations of the characters' alienation from life, to fantastical sequences which rework horror and kaiju tropes to great effect; Man Lim-chung's art direction also augments the characterization outlined in what is only the director's second solo-penned screenplay (with the first being the portmanteau Trivial Matters from 2007). Such production values, along with its pronounced sobriety, should yield a healthy run in Asian-themed festivals after a profitable run at home (in Hong Kong and also mainland China).

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Apart from its literal meaning, Aberdeen/Heung Kong Tsai also alludes to a part in Hong Kong where the first batch of British colonialists came ashore in the 19th century; it's also where the film's protagonists hail from as descendants of fishermen based in the area. Aberdeen's historical significance as the source of the city's double-barreled trajectory to both prosperity and personality crisis mirrors the confused state of the characters, all of which are weighed down by what is described by the patriarch, Dong (Ng Man-tat), as "sins of the past".

In a monologue, Dong said his choice of becoming a Taoist priest stems from a desire to atone for the blood on his fishing ancestors' hands. The killings they made, however, would bring bad karma for more generations to come - and it's against this backdrop that his children's problems are unveiled. The older sister, Ching (Miriam Yeung), works as a guide in the city's coastal defence museum, her time spent reciting history and confined to underground bunkers becoming a visual parallel of her fixation about the breakdown of her relationship with her deceased mother; this obsession with the past blinds her from the extra-marital affairs of her ultrasound technician husband (Eric Tsang).

Meanwhile, the younger brother Tao (Louis Koo) is an ambitious and narcissistic cram-school instructor and a manchild with thinly-veiled chauvinist tendencies: a collector of toys (among them a lifesize Star Wars stormtrooper), he would unabashedly spin crass anecdotes about women marrying for money as analogies for economic theories.

His vanity is brought to the fore with her marriage to Ceci (Gigi Leung), a fashion model anxious about losing her good looks with the imminent arrival of middle age; her fears of being cast aside by shapelier and more amoral upstarts - a fear of becoming the past to the future represented by younger women - becomes a corollary to her husband's disapproval against his widowed father's relationship with  the nightclub escort Ta (Carrie Ng): moving on, for Tao, is a crime.

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The culmination of all these fear and loathing is Tao and Gigi's daughter Chloe (Lee Man-kwai), whose plain looks (her nickname at home being "Piggy") brought his father much dismay and doubt. The elementary schoolgirl could only channel her confusion inwards: either through her Wing Chun fighting drills, or raising a pet iguana, or asking near-existentialist questions about mortality which leaves her elders tongue-tied.

Boasting the most unique nuances among all the film's characters, Chloe should have been ideal as the pivot around which the familial meltdown and resolution unfolds  (à la Edward Yang's A One and A Two).Indeed, Pang has allowed her childlike energy and ingenuousness to take center stage in some of the film's key moments, such as when she dreams of storming through Hong Kong (or, to be exact, an impressively-made papier-mache model of it), or when she leads her family to help save a whale stranded on the beach. But star power is probably at play here: with all the A-listers vying for that prestige-upping performance here, Lee's possibilities are overlooked.

In fact, Aberdeen does betray uncertainty on Pang's part: his decision of not addressing the more pressing socio-political concerns - how can a story about "Little Hong Kong"/"Hong Kong Boy" ignore the omnipresent debate about the city's post-colonial discourse as illustrated in Vulgaria? - have left the mischievously outspoken auteur with much smaller a chance of breaking new ground.

For fear of his much-obscured message to have been left undetected, he has chosen to deploy obvious metaphors (such as the discovery of a buried bomb from the second world war); perhaps worried he couldn't do emotive, Peter Kam's score is maxed up to the point of being sometimes overwhelming and too obvious. To quote The Decemberists' Rox in the Box, which is played out over the film's final credits: "What were you meant for?" It begs the question of how Pang should play his card rights and understand where his forte lies - and the raising of voices, rather than a sad resignation to fate, is certainly an essential part to it all.

Venue: Opening film, Hong Kong International Film Festival, Mar. 24

Production Companies: Making Film Productions and CKF Pictures in a Sun Entertainment Culture, Making Film Productions, Huayi Brothers and Sil-Metropole Organisation presentation

Director: Pang Ho-cheung

Cast: Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, Eric Tsang, Miriam Yeung, Ng Man-tat, Carrie Ng

Producers: Chau Cheuk-wah, Tong Choi-chi, Wang Zhongjun, Tam Wai-pong, Chen Yiqi

Executive Producers: Pang Ho-cheung, Chen Kuo-fu, Subi Liang, Wang Zhonglei

Screenwriter: Pang Ho-cheung

Director of Photography: Jason Kwan

Art Director: Man Lim-chung

Editor: Wenders Li

Music: Peter Kam

International Sales: Bravo Pictures

In Cantonese

96 minutes