On Screen

Goodbye, Hong Kong, Goodbye

On Septet: The Story of Hong Kong, dirs: Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Woo-ping, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark. Hong Kong. 2020.

Septet: The Story of Hong Kong

Dirs: Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Woo-ping, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark. Hong Kong. 2020. 113mins. # FILMeX

It’s become difficult to imagine a future in which production credits would be listed as Hong Kong/China, as if that divide still existed. But for those who came to love HK through its cinema, and made the journey to the city, those few decades of breathtakingly inspired and formally revolutionary filmmaking will always mean one place, alone. The seven directors behind this project have contributed to writing that history, and their short films function as a goodbye letter to that particular moment, rather than a goodbye to China, as Ann Hui’s Love after Love at TIFF demonstrated, though her contribution, Headmaster, is one of the more convincing episodes with the brilliant  Francis Ng in the title role of her piece looking back at elementary schooling in the early sixties.

It is fair to say that not all seven titles aim to convey a similar nostalgic experience, as the film moves from decade to decade and how what came to define Hong Kong was in constant flux of transformation, translated into various forms of cultural production, from canto pop to cinema. Patrick Tam’s Tender is the Night celebrates an eighties romance aesthetic while Yuen Woo-Ping’s boldly titled Homecoming is set in 1997 and oscillates between the formidable Yuen Wah’s devotion to the Wong Fei Hong character and leaving the city. 

Johnnie To, who like all the great HK film masters is able to think of 100 camera set-ups in one single location, has three friends spending the entire film in the same restaurant looking at their cell phones at the turn of the century,  hoping to strike it rich quickly during the SARS crisis, which provides his film with unwanted anticipation as HK in 2020 suffered not only from the covid-19 pandemic, but also endured the demise of a number of civil liberties. Getting wealthy however was not one of them.The late Ringo Lam’s Astray has the enduring Simon Yam providing the spectator with a tour of all that’s been lost and erased in HK. While other cities have experienced such labors, notably Tokyo, Lam laments those simultaneously connected with the cantonese character of the city and its cinema markers, a fate its main character is unable to survive. Tsui Hark’s Conversation In Depth takes place in a mental hospital in which a Godot-like dialogue takes place largely made up of the names of HK directors, as Tsui Hark and Ann Hui look on, cynically, from the outside…

The opening film, Exercise, is directed by the legendary Sammo Hung and displays this art of using one small location, here a rooftop where children are training in martial arts. While the film is bathed in sentiment and nostalgia, the skills of camera movement and placement, the editing choices remind us of the formal groundbreaking achieved by HK filmmakers. It is an additional pleasure to see Mary Stephen, who had a long collaboration with French auteur Eric Rohmer, listed among the film’s credits. The last shot of Exercise sees Sammo Hung nowadays, sitting and looking at the audience with a gaze that carries that history with him, mourns its loss and has moved on. Hung is a pillar of chinese film history.

The screening at Asahi Hall was nearly full, and audience engagement with the film was remarkable as laughter of recognition arose at all the names listed in the Tsui Hark film, or the appearance of a notable actor/actress brought bursts of sudden applause. Tokyo is one of many centers that had bonded with Hong Kong cinema. The quality of feeling that emanated from the spectators echoed the film’s farewell.

S.

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