Country: Hong Kong
Director: Jessie Tsang Tsui-Shan
Screenplay: Luk Bo-Bo, Jessie Tsang Tsui-Shan
Cinematography: Chung-yip Yau
Soundscore: Masamichi Shigeno
Runtime: 98 min
Cast: Leila Tong, Amey Chum, Lawrence Chou
Trailer: on YouTube
Seen at the film’s UK premiere at the Hong Kong 15 Film Festival organised by Terracotta Distribution. The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Jessie Tsang. The film also screened at the Cornerhouse in Manchester.
Celluloid Hong Kong normally signifies genre films – that is, action flicks either of the martial arts or the cops & criminals variety. Hong Kong on film also normally means a glimpse of the pulsating, high-rise city. The Hong Kong 15 Film Festival, organised to commemorate the 15 years since the territory became a special administrative region of China and intended to celebrate the best of all of Hong Kong cinema, past and present, made a much laudable effort to offer a diverse selection of films, including dramas about growing up, such as 當碧咸遇上奧雲 (Dong Pek Ham yu sheung O Wan/When Beckham Met Owen, 2004), and growing old, such as 桃姐 (Táo Jiě/A Simple Life, 2011), which I also reviewed. Jessie Tsang’s 大藍湖 (Da lag hu/Big Blue Lake, 2011) was another ‘different kind’ of offering, not only falling outside of the action genre, but showing a Hong Kong that most are completely unaware of: rural Hong Kong.
Da lag hu takes us to the director’s own home village and also uses some of her own experiences, although it is not a strictly autobiographical film. Lai-Yee (Leila Tong) returns from the city to her countryside home for the first time in perhaps a decade, back then having run off after sneaking money from her father to train as an actress in England and make a career. That career however never quite took off, leading Lai-Yee back to Ho Chung Village after all these years. The visit soon becomes an extended stay to watch over her Alzheimer-suffering mother (Amy Chum) as both her father and brother are currently away. Unemployed in her chosen profession, Lai-Yee takes on all kinds of odd jobs, such as pretending to be blind to test the service in an eatery or playing an impossible-to-satisfy customer in a shop that sells sunglasses. Although these work assignments may be acting related, they serve only as a reminder that her big dreams have finally run their course.
Lai-Yee also reunites with Chun (Lawrence Chou), one of her classmates from childhood, who has returned to seek his own past in the village town he too left long ago. More than acquaintances, but perhaps less than friends and certainly not lovers, Lai-Yee and Chun hang out with each other and try to find places of long-ago – the titular big, blue lake, which may or may not in fact exist – while running away from the reality of the present: their current-day troubles of failed work, love and family.
It is a plot that veers in many different directions, all potentially interesting but here resulting in a film that seems as if not quite sure about the kind of story it wants to tell. It is all bits and pieces: there is Lai-yee’s guilt towards her own family and coming to terms with a mother that acts like a lost child and that sometimes no longer recognises her, the young woman’s new-found enthusiasm to put on a play with the elderly people that exercise in the park each morning, a high school boy’s sweetly innocent crush and Chun’s own story, which turns out to involve a number of twists and fabrications, including an estranged wife.
Styles too are mixed, the film containing interview clips of the villagers, with factual and fictional crossing over as Tsang creates a sort of impromptu documentary of real people in between the other, scripted scenes. Although the real-life snapshots are charming in themselves and do serve a purpose in the end, they feel, for quite a while, somewhat awkwardly inserted into the fictional story. It is not that such a ‘bits and pieces’ approach is generally problematic in films as it can, when used by a highly skilled filmmaker, create a layered and refreshingly unpredictable final product. In Da lag hu, however, as the the various threads of the storyline do not quite connect and sufficient background story is missing, the actions of characters often feel unmotivated and the individuals themselves are explored too little to allow a real sense of who they are or for us to really care for them. What ultimately results is thus not unpredictability – an experience on the part of the viewer that can make watching a film incredibly satisfying – but a lack of focus that falls on the side of the filmmakers, highlighting the need for a tighter script and better editing. While Jessie Tsang Tsui-Shan has potentially worthwhile stories to tell, she would do well to find a talented writer capable of bringing those tales to life in a manner that doesn’t leave viewers second-guessing the film’s focal point, no matter how many subsidiary plot lines are spun.