'Camera' ('Ngaan Gei'): PiFan Review

Camera Still - H 2014
Lianain Films

Camera Still - H 2014

Beauty thrives but also distracts the director from his aspirations of fusing fiction with social commentary.  

Documentary-maker James Leong's first feature film follows a surveillance specialist's travails in a dystopian Hong Kong

For the past decade, James Leong (with his journalist-activist partner Lynn Lee) has made some of the most insightful documentaries to come out of Southeast Asia. Passabe, his 2004 debut about remorse and reconciliation in war-ravaged East Timor, predated Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing by a decade; his follow-ups, meanwhile, have cast an empathetic eye on Hong Kong street sleepers, North Korean filmmakers and mainland Chinese rural activists. So it's nearly inevitable that his first foray into feature filmmaking, a sci-fi thriller, aspires to social critique, too.

Sensitive to the issues whirling around the land of Leong's ancestors (he spent most of his adult life in Britain and then Singapore), the Fortissimo-repped Camera is well-positioned to probe into many a problem propping up in the city in recent years. The story of a private eye's travails in a dystopian Hong Kong raises — at least in the first half of the film — quite a few questions about state surveillance and land grabs dressed up as urban renewal. And, perhaps, just as importantly, there's also the city's struggle to preserve its unique linguistic identity, self-governance (with cars boasting mainland Chinese-style license plates) and values (regarding civil rights), three things that distinguish Hongkongers from their compatriots across the border in China proper. 

This fatalistic world view is a perfect fit for the noir in Camera, as detached surveillance expert Ming (Sean Li) finds his work and life veering out of control as he falls for enigmatic femme fatale Clare (Venus Wong).

What lights up Camera is the imagery: within its low-budget constraints (the Singaporean-Hong Kong co-production counted on grants from Puchon, where it premieres in competition at the city's annual Fantastic Film Festival), the film remains visually arresting throughout, with Basil Mironer's camerawork and James Page's production design conjuring a chilling, menacing vibe in a Big Brother-like future.

But just as Ming is distracted and swayed toward a web of danger because of his pursuit of beauty, Leong has also lost his bearings in deciding what Camera should focus on. 

The film's protagonist carries around a complex psyche. His extreme measure of inserting a surveillance camera into his head (the film's Chinese title translates literally as the Dziga Vertov-sounding "eye-machine") might or might not be related to his desire to remember, as he struggles to recover from the childhood trauma of witnessing the death of his father (played here, in a cameo, by Leong's real-life actor-director father Leong Po-chih).

This strand of remembrance in a time of tyranny resembles that of La Jetee — in fact, Camera concludes with a still close-up of Clare, something which mirrors a similar image of the mysterious woman haunting the male protagonist in Chris Marker's seminal reflection on time and space. Philosophizing about such vague notions of filmmaking, or more concrete issues such as contemporary politics in Hong Kong,  might be what Leong intends to do, but Camera remains fuzzy and raw in its substance, and not yet the full-fledged finished product which could bring out the real potential of the filmmaker.


Production companies: Lianain Films

Cast: Sean Li, Venus Wong, Calvin Poon

Director: James Leong

Screenwriters: James Leong, Ben Slater

Producers: Lynn Lee, Jacqueline Liu

Executive producers: Lynn Lee, James Leong, Po Chih Leong, Michael Werner, Jim McDonnell

Director of photography: Basil Mironer

Art director: James Page

Editor: James Leong

Music: Shao Yanpeng

International Sales: Fortissimo Films

In Cantonese and Mandarin

No rating; 96 minutes