May We Chat (Mei Gaau Siu Nui): Film Review

Local Productions Limited
The cast's explosive zeal sidetracked by generous smatterings of melodrama and explicit references to past wayward-youth classics.

Hong Kong critic-cum-filmmaker Philip Yung's sophomore effort casts a light on the excesses of three marginalized and exasperated teenage girls.

Never mind the title's deferential tenor: May We Chat is possibly one of the most energetic, explosive and, well, expletive-laden films to come out of Hong Kong this year. But it's also one that generates some exasperation as well: while relentless in its graphic depiction of the amoral universe as inhabited by its three teenage female protagonists -- a welcome approach which gives voice to the much-obscured anger and angst of the city's marginalized youth – Philip Yung's second feature also constantly falls back on affected aesthetics (such as a recurrent musical leitmotif on piano or the use of slow-motion and sepia-tinged flashbacks) and forced exposition in order to provide some rhyme or reason to the manic and eventually murderous mayhem.

Positioned explicitly as a 21st century take of the 1983 film Lovely FifteenJohnny Mak's juvenile-delinquent drama cuts a marked presence here, with Yung interweaving his film with grainy clips from that perennially relevant classic and even recruiting that film's two leads to play older versions of their characters -- May We Chat appears to be a more combustible and controversial piece, what with its representations of sex, violence and sexual violence.

But unlike Fifteen – made when Hong Kong was spellbound by a ends-of-days, greed-is-good ethos and living it large as a bastion of unfettered capitalism facing an uncertain political future – May We Chat actually proffers a less fatalist view for what lies ahead. It's a world where, when push comes to shove, hoodlums could (and would) count on the police to save the day, and when the characters' unruly days would be just a painful chapter in their rite of passage for a more secure and better adulthood.

It's a mix which will play well to a younger Hong Kong demographic seeking, all at once, visual thrills and some kind of narrative closure, but the film – which premiered at last month's Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, and is now being shown on press rounds to position its place for a February release and then the Hong Kong Film Awards in April – also represents a missed opportunity for Yung to advance this misbehaving-teens subgenre by showing how this problem is never going to neatly fade away, and that it's as cyclical as the long line of films about the issue being produced by Hong Kong filmmakers since the 1960s with Patrick Lung's The Teddy Girls.

Not that May We Chat doesn't hint, at least slightly, on this. While the cussing, bullying and outright acts of physical harm are all the more unnerving, two of the film's most disconcerting scenes actually involve what appears to be just some meanness and mischief from elementary-age children. Firstly, there's a young schoolgirl, still too short to actually comfortably cook a meal at the stove, boasting of a street-wise cynicism well beyond her age, as she talks like an adult when confronting foul-mouthed hawkers and advising others on placing wagers on football matches; then there is the pre-adolescent boy who fails to react at all to his friend's lewd remarks about his mother and his sister. Both are pointers to future lives to be lived without principles, prologues to an even more scary and heartless generation to come.

But these two pre-adolescents were just thrown into the mix on the side. The main dishes here – and spicy ones they are too – are three late teenage girls flirting with ruin like there's no tomorrow. There's the tempestuous Wai-wai (Heidi Lee), who had to attend to both her drug-addict mother and that prematurely jaded younger sister of hers, as well as a hoodlum boyfriend, then there's the mute Yee-gee (Rainky Wai), whose parents had long abandoned her to her grandmother and now works turns tricks to earn money while not at school. Making up this deadly troika is Yan (Kabby Hui), a poor little rich girl electing to rebel against the affluence brought about by the remarriage of her mother Irene (Irene Wan, from Lonely Fifteen)

What brings them together for the first time is the mobile messaging app WeChat (thus the title), and it's through the visualization of the use of this device – as the messages were constantly shown on screen in its gaudy, speech-bubble splendor – that Yung addresses the machine-gun and highly narcissistic communication model which shapes the three characters. (For Yee-gee, the app is even more useful as it both helps her articulate herself better, and also in her locating potential customers through a function that could locate fellow users nearby. Its operator Tencent should be relieved: the app was actually depicted as quite useful and easy to navigate.) While a marker of a new generation's psyche, the app also serves to differentiate them from their elders – that is, the two Lonely Fifteen stars Wan and Peter Mak, the former who could only know what her daughter thinks by listening to her messages, and the latter (playing the bloated, crippled has-been which his past persona has grown up to become) fumbling his way into learning to use it.

Such nuances, however, also come hand in hand with the eye for the urban backdrop which could help reveal the mental landscape of the characters. The wide range of settings – from Yan's cold-chic white apartment, to the ominous tenements or back-alley staircases in which Wai-wai and his boyfriend wander around – certainly provides the film with a distinct geographical mark, thanks to not just Yung and his screenwriter Lou Shiu-wah but also cinematographer Shi Yue and art designer Janice Chan.

But somehow these merits are also overwhelmed by the director's concessions to what he has readily admitted to be his first foray into the commercial mainstream: the film critic's directorial debut, Glamorous Youth, is a promising, subtle independent feature which has landed him a Best New Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Yung and his screenwriter Lou Shiu-wah's attempt to drive the story with a new, noir-like angle – the teenagers' lives only begin to unravel as they try desperately to track down or at least find some meaning in the disappearance of Yan – but this new take is weighed down by melodrama.

For all their tough talk and walk, they are eventually conveniently revealed as merely victims of simplistically-depicted social circumstances; when push comes to shove, their cynical shell would reveal ideal souls who still believe in the power of love (and would go to extremes to avenge for betrayal of that), or sacrifice themselves for friends whom they haven't known for long. But the one good thing about this is how the three leading actresses – all newcomers to not just acting but also show business in general – are really given a platform to showcase their range and their abilities. Indeed, Yung has managed to harness their youthful zeal to explosive effect, and perhaps this wrath is what May We Chat is all about.

Production Company: Local Production Limited

Director: Philip Yung

Cast: Kabby Hui, Heidi Lee, Rainky Wai, Irene Wan, Peter Mak

Producer: Ng Kin-hung

Screenwriters: Lou Shiu-wah, Philip Yung

Director of Photography: Shi Yue

Editor: Azrael Chung

Art Designer: Janice Chan

Costume Designer: Chung Cho-ting

Music: Rachel Kar

In Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Fujianese and Chongqing dialect

100 minutes