'G Affairs' ('G saat'): Film Review

Courtesy of A Really Happy Film
The naked city laid bare.

Industry veterans Chapman To, Herman Yau and China's Huang Lu throw their weight behind debuting filmmaker Lee Cheuk-pan's mystery-drama.

When a human head literally rolls (or kind of bounces) into the Hong Kong apartment of a high-school cellist, it's the beginning of a warped, thoroughly unpleasant suspense demi-thriller about a city on the verge of collapse — it’s just unclear what kind of collapse. In first-time feature filmmaker Lee Cheuk-pan’s G Affairs, money and power are all that matter and no one is immune to the allure of either — or both.

G Affairs picked up a pile of Hong Kong film award nominations, including nods for best new director, supporting actress and cinematography, and there's no doubt the film is a striking, cranky debut. Too bleak for China’s censors and almost too Hong Kong-centric for regional audiences, it might skirt by on the connective social tissue that lurks beneath the pic’s setting; as they deal with similar issues, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean audiences are likely to get what’s being said. G Affairs still has a chance at festival play overseas, and it would be ideal for streaming services.

At first glance, the material would appear to be in executive producer Herman Yau’s (The Sleep Curse) wheelhouse, but Lee is less about gory images than gruesome humanity. And as clear as Lee’s voice may be, the pic nonetheless pivots on a silly contrivance: The case is solved and the story told through “G” things that pop up — gravity, G cups, Gustav, gun, flat 6G and so on. How that makes a bigger comment on what Lee sees as the sorry state of Hong Kong is anyone’s guess, and why he and writer Kurt Chiang felt it was necessary is the real mystery. Not surprisingly, “G” also stands for gimmicky. Still, there’s enough meat on the bones and enough visual style to keep the film engaging through to its entirely non-mysterious ending (not a bad thing).

As stated, the pic begins with corrupt cop Lung (Chapman To, quickly turning into the industry’s emerging filmmaker champion) knocking boots with a prostitute in budding cellist Tai’s (Lam Sen) apartment when a head comes through the open balcony door. Lung has requisitioned the flat for “police work,” but really just uses it as a base for his smuggling, counterfeiting and trafficking side gigs. Tai’s classmate Yu Ting (Hanna Chan) is intensely unpopular at school because she’s at the top of her class, she’s pretty and her father is Lung. She’s despised almost as much as Tai is for his superior attitude and tendency to narc on other students for minor infractions. Yu Ting’s mother has been dead for some time, and so looking out for her to a degree is her unhappy “auntie” Xiao Mei (gorgeous Chinese indie darling Huang Lu, the standout here), a prostitute who runs afoul of Lung but oddly befriends Tai. She likes to listen to him play. One of her regular clients is Yu Ting’s ultra-Catholic teacher Markus (Alan Luk), who’s embroiled in a sexual relationship with Yu Ting. Finally, the students’ autistic pal Don (Kyle Li) is also being manipulated by Lung. He may be the key to the head in Tai’s apartment.

Despite appearances, G Affairs isn’t all that complicated, and the crime that sets the story in motion ends up being more of a series of unfortunate coincidences rather than a dastardly conspiracy. The head is just there to serve as the lens that the mercenary, unethical and hypocritical behavior that either drives the characters or blows back on them is viewed through. Self-preservation is the name of the game, and there is little room for empathy. G Affairs’ characters are aggressively grimy, and it’s hard to care about most of them. Even the seemingly put-upon Tai — abandoned by his family for prioritizing music over money — can be a bit of a drip. But To brings a dangerous, vaguely self-aware charm to Lung, and carries himself almost as if he gave up trying to be a good cop when no others seemed to be. HKFA nominee Huang rescues the hooker with a heart of gold trope from the trash heap of cliché with a lived-in, weary performance that gives Xiao Mei, a Mainland transplant, real shading, despite some on-the-nose dialogue. At the center of it all, Yu Ting is a blank slate that has yet to be molded by her surroundings and, given an ambiguous ending, we’re not sure if she ever will be.

Slate-gray rooms and Dutch angles abound in the police precinct where Tai, Don and Markus are questioned, while soft sunlight and vibrant color infuses the frames where Yu Ting and Xiao Mei recall happier times. HKFA-nominated cinematographer Karl Tam otherwise doesn’t get fancy, opting for efficient, mostly claustrophobic compositions to make it seem like the city is smothering these people. According to Lee, it’s doing just that. G Affairs is a remarkably assured debut, even with the extraneous “G” mechanism, and it represents a welcome critical voice in an industry that seems to be letting its mouthy cinematic heritage wither on the vine.

Production company: G-Class Films
Cast: Hanna Chan, Chapman To, Huang Lu, Alan Luk,
Kyle Li, Lam Sen
Director: Lee Cheuk-pan
Screenwriter: Kurt Chiang, based on a story by Lit Ka Wang
Producers: Flora Goh, Titus Ho
Executive producer: Edwin Teo, Arthur Poh, Robert Li, Herman Yau
Director of photography: Karl Tam
Production designer: Leung Tsz Yin
Costume designer: Chan Sin
Editor: Barfuss Hui
Music: Joe Ng
World sales:
Distribution Workshop

In Cantonese
105 minutes