'I’m Livin’ It': Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Tokyo Film Festival
A partly coy, partly realistic view of inequality in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong stars Aaron Kwok and Miriam Yeung breathe life into a drama about homeless people living in a fast-food joint of broken dreams in Wong Hing-fan’s directing debut.

Big-name headliners Aaron Kwok and Miriam Yeung raise the profile of a well-meaning if largely familiar tale about homeless street people living in abject poverty in Hong Kong in I'm Livin' It. Making his directing debut is Wong Hing-fan, who comes from a long-established career as an assistant director in predominantly commercial HK movies, and whose timely social theme is tinged with too many warm and fuzzy moments for comfort.

The most distinctive and convincing thing about the film is the way so many of the stories about these down-and-outers end: not with some happy twist of fate, or superhuman force of will, but more realistically in even greater misery and comfortless death. Not even the characters’ altruistic generosity and solidarity with each other can change the way the cards are stacked against those who have gotten off the money wheel at the wrong moment. Like a less original version of the Japanese pic Shoplifters, there can be no happy ending. Fine tech work makes the story easy to watch, however, and the two stars — though dirtied up a bit — do sparkle, as Kwok and Yeung effortlessly play out an unconfessed, non-starting romance.They should help move the pic along to markets for Asian product after its bow at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Kwok, who usually plays a clean-shaven smooth operator, is almost unrecognizable with a moustache, goatee and badly cut hair as the dignified but penniless Bowen. He was once a high-rolling finance executive beloved by his employees, until he got jailed for embezzlement. Unemployable after his release from prison, Bowen has been living on the street, too ashamed to go home to his senile mother and sister (Kathy Wu). The latter has been paying off his debts for the last 10 years, touching on the theme of family honor that runs through Ja Poon’s screenplay.

His managerial abilities intact, Bowen has organized a motley crew who spend their days and nights in a fast-food joint open 24/7. We get the setup while he shows the ropes to a newbie, a teenage slacker (Zeno Woo) addicted to his cellphone who ran away from home after a banal argument. Avoid the lice-and-rat infested shelters and underpasses, Bowen advises the boy; sleep sitting up at restaurant tables and wash in the gents' room. There are free lunchboxes distributed on the street, and meals are made available in the back of restaurants that kindly stock a refrigerator with uneaten food.

The group is full of pathetic figures like an old man in denial about his wife’s death and a young mother (Cya Liu) and her little girl, who is their mascot. The mother’s story is pitiful but also hard to comprehend for Westerners. She works herself to death to repay the gambling debts of her dead boyfriend’s mother, a nasty old biddy who hates her guts. Her saintly self-sacrifice leads her to prostitution and her child to an orphanage.

The one really effective instance of solidarity occurs when Jane (Yeung), an underpaid nightclub singer, sells her beloved racks of glamorous stage costumes to pay Bowen’s urgent medical bills. Though it’s not clear whether Jane is sleeping in the fast-food place (her paycheck seems to put her in a slightly more comfortable position compared to the others), she treats them as her family. Her feelings for Bowen, though never put into words, lend an undercurrent of believable emotion to a film that can often seem coy and formulaic. And the downbeat ending is right on target: Kwok draws a convincing end to Bowen’s woes, getting the tone just right.

Production company: Entertaining Power Co. Ltd.
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Miriam Yeung, Alex Man, Nina Paw, Cheung Tat-ming, Cya Liu, Kathy Wu, Zeno Koo

Director: Wong Hing-fan
Screenwriter: Ja Poon
Producer: Soi Cheang
Director of photography: SK Yip
Production designer: Chung Man Lim
Editor: Angie Lam
Music: Peter Kam
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Asian Future)
World sales: Media Asia

114 minutes