Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012)
Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012) starts off with a drama at sea as a desperate mother takes a sampan across from the mainland to Hong Kong during a storm. The mythology says any child born at sea during a storm is switched to something less human. The mother is a victim of rape by a British sailor. She allows the child to be adopted by a Tanka family. The adopting mother has just suffered a miscarriage and is not sure she can have another child. A boy will help her survive when he grows up. This starts off our hero at the bottom of the heap. Not only is he half Chinese and half Caucasian, he’s a member of the Tanka class, the lowest social group that lives in the floating city of the title. At every point, therefore, he suffers discrimination.
Structurally, the film then moves us forward fifty years to find our hero, Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok), the taipan of the British East India Company in the final years of the British colonial rule. He’s married to fellow Tanka, Tai (Charlie Yeung), who feels intimidated by the upward mobility and is uncomfortable when invited to mix with the elite of Hong Kong. When going out to network and socialise, this leaves Bo in the company of Fion (Annie Liu), a woman who’s very comfortable with the international lifestyle of Hong Kong and its ex-pat British community. We then come to the point of the film. At one such party where the Governor of Hong Kong is present, he looks in a mirror and has a mild identity crisis. Here he is, a Tanka boy who has managed to climb so high. We then get an extended flashback to see how this rise has been achieved. However, it’s perhaps appropriate to start off with a general comment about Aaron Kwok’s appearance. One of the slightly pejorative ways in which European foreigners are described is as ang mohs or 红毛. This is a reference to their characteristic “red hair”, i.e. fairer shades of colour. For this film, Aaron Kwok is supposed to be half Caucasian and have “red hair”. This is not convincing. I’m not saying this prevents the film from succeeding, but it’s a visual hurdle of credibility that the film fails to surmount.
As he grows up, he loses the childhood friend who persists in saying she will marry him even though he’s an adopted mixed. His mother played by Josie Ho when young and the local priest want him to get an education. His father objects but, seeing literacy as the way to get a job on land, he persists. This is a major generational clash. The father is deeply traditional and sees the only way into the future for the family through his adoptive son taking over the boat and continuing the life. When he grows older, Bo leaves the boat and meets Tai who makes a living collecting leftover food thrown away by the British Navy. Unfortunately his father is killed on the boat during a storm. This makes Bo the head of the family just as the sixth natural child is born to the family. Now played by Hee Ching Paw, his mother is forced to place four of the children in a home run by a Christian charity as she and Bo can’t afford to look after them. The two youngest are given away to couples whom they hope will care for them. This is all tragic and moving.
He gets a job as an office boy because he can read and write in Chinese. The East India Company pays for him to learn English. In turn, he teaches his mother to read and write in Chinese, but she can’t get through the exam to qualify as a sampan “captain” because she can’t afford the hong bao or red envelope containing bribe to the examiner. Then there’s a further crisis because the home looking after the children closes — the American Christian decides to take his charity to Vietnam. Bo tries to get company accommodation but is rejected because he’s not married. That forces the marriage to Tai. We then have a whistle-stop tour through the anti-British riots and Margaret’s Thatcher’s decision to surrender control to the mainland as the film charts his slow progress up through the ranks despite the usual British colonial bigotry represented by Dick Callahan (David Peatfield). This brings us back to the core question. What should he be? There’s no such thing as a Hong Kong citizen. Should he abandon his roots, join the Jockey Club and take British citizenship? He could embrace Fion just as easily. She moves in that circle. His wife doesn’t fit. Of course, once the mainland Chinese take over, he doesn’t fit in that culture either. He’s not merely a Tanka at the bottom of the local pile. He was a despised upstart from a colony when he went to Britain on a business trip. He’s not a communist as understood by mainlanders. He’s just a curiosity that can speak Mandarin with a funny accent.
Director and screenwriter Yim Ho has produced what, in many ways, is a bold film about identity and the importance of family. We need to be clear. For the relevant time, there has been an elite group making money in Hong Kong, but the focus here is on an Everyman. Hong Kong’s identity is still very much in flux as the ex-colony struggles with the practical reality of “one country, two systems”, making this film a kind of parable through which to understand the problems in reconciling the implied promise with the reality imposed. Like Bo, the mass of ordinary Hong Kong people has lifted itself up from its early days of colonial oppression where vast numbers lived in the sampans of the floating city or in poverty on land. The people were abused and then abandoned by the British, so the masses have turned their backs on much of the international life and made a home for themselves as a family on this plot of land. Sooner or later, this group of people will lose much of its original identity. This is not to say the individuals will forget their personal histories. But they will have years of life under Chinese rule giving them new history and a different set of values as the older members die off and the new children grow into adults. As a child growing into a man, Bo fought with his father, rebelled against the traditional way of life, and left the sampan to work on land. He was lucky enough to have both the ability and the humility to work with the British so he got to the top. But that was never as important as remembering that he loved his wife and had a family to take care of. His children may be citizens of the one country China and be happy. Perhaps that’s the hope for the future as the masses now work for a new elite and aim to build better lives. Aaron Kwok is impressive in the only role of substance. All the other characters are simply there to carry the broader narrative forward. It’s a performance worth seeing in a rather pleasing, slightly allegorical drama called Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨.