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Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005)

October 15, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the more revealing issues for fiction to tackle is mental illness. No matter how much we Westerners might try to deceive ourselves that we’ve made significant progress in our reaction to those who are mentally ill, there remains a reservoir of prejudice and fear. It colours our social reactions to those we encounter in our everyday lives. In part, the prejudice is born of the misconception that the mentally ill are likely to be violent. The fear comes from seeing the thin line between socially acceptable and different behaviour. The more honest among us acknowledge how little it would take to push us over that line. In Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005), director and screenwriter James Yuen has crafted a script that explores different levels of social disorder. As a film set in Hong Kong, it should represent the best side of Confucianism, i.e. focus on the personal peace and harmony flowing from each person accepting their allotted place in the fabric of society. So family members are filial and, in all aspects of their daily lives, they internalise their private feelings, knowing that speaking out may disrupt the general air of harmony. As a social and political philosophy, it’s relatively easy to fit in if your mental health is good. But, because behaviour may not always match expectations, there’s an additional stigma if the failure to conform is involuntary. A film-maker has a loud megaphone and access to a mass market. With the right film, there can be a positive effort to encourage a change in social attitudes rather than trotting out the same stereotypes that will simply confirm the stigma. The challenge, therefore, is to craft a parable from which viewers can draw lessons for their own lives. The difficulty lies in the need to avoid being preachy hence this story being dressed up as a police procedural.

Francis Ng reflecting on his head injury

 

Still young but seasoned police officer, Chris Chan (Eason Chan), draws the short straw of Liu Tak Nam (Joey Yung), the enthusiastic rookie, on her first day. One of the more notorious individuals on their beat through Wan Chai is Shing Wong (Francis Ng). He has a tragic backstory that left him suicidal and profoundly depressed. Although he was talked down from the roof, the only result seemed to be the addition of schizophrenia. He walks the streets with a dead phone clamped to his ear, constantly talking to old friends, acquaintances and his long-lost wife. He helps foreign tourists by giving them directions and explaining something of Hong Kong’s architectural past, he’s fixated by the lingerie shop he used to run, and is convinced he still owes money to a loan shark (Henry Fong). As all good parables should, the community is shown as tolerant. Rachel (Kara Hui), his sister who runs a newspaper stall, does her best to look after him. The loan shark does not accept his repeated efforts to pay off the loan. His old school friend who runs a mobile phone business humours him when he complains the phone does not work. The lady who runs the lingerie shop is frustrated, but does not call the police.

 

Unfortunately, Shing’s world view is threatened from three sides. In another of his cameos, Suet Lam has the thankless role of throwing himself off a tall building and dying. This is what Shing avoided, but watching this death leap shakes him. A divorced woman moves into the flat above and begins to run a legitimate massage business, and a serial rapist and murderer begins to kill women. Throughout, our pair of police officers walk the streets. Chris Chan has given up all ambition. He passively moves through life, doing his best to avoid any situation in which there might be conflict or make paperwork for himself. He watches the burning enthusiasm of the rookie and recalls he was once the same but, initially, sees no reason to change. However, when they are called to a bus in which a man has exposed himself to two older school girls, he’s sufficiently roused to subdue the flasher as he tries to escape. This public demonstration of judo skills provokes the girls to invite him to give lessons at their school. After a very successful session, he goes with a small group for a meal and, after talking, sends two girls home. One becomes a victim of the killer and the other precocious seventeen-year old makes him think about his lack of interest in the future.

Eason Chan and Joey Yung agreeing to disagree

 

All this boils up into a slightly overwrought climax in which Shing’s desire to protect the woman upstairs proves dangerous, and Chris Chan remembers what it feels like to want to make a difference in life. In the aftermath, Shing makes something of a recovery and returns to a more competent level of performance — Confucius would be proud of him. Chris Chan puts his name forward to the promotion board and Liu Tak Nam sets out to conquer a handsome motorcycle cop (Alex Fong). It’s interesting to watch Lam Suet, Henry Fong and Benz Hui, veteran of film and TVB, pitch in with cameo performances. The familiarity of their faces is somehow reassuring in an uncertain world. As a film, I think Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005) goes as far as it can. Made in 2004/5, Hong Kong was still very much in the cultural melting pot and films cannot be too controversial in such times. As a gentle push in the right direction, this is a success. The only drawback to an otherwise competent script is the lack of credibility in the relationship between Francis Ng and the newly arrived masseuse, and the suddenness of his recovery to provide the required “happy ending”. Taking altogether, it’s a reasonably entertaining way of passing 90 minutes.

 

Forest of Death or Sum yeun (2007)

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Forest of Death or Sum yeun (2007) is ostensibly set in Thailand — it’s a Hong Kong film and, despite China’s efforts to make the newly reacquired territory a bigger better place to live, there’s no actual room for what’s supposed to be a large forest. A relocation to a more expansive location with an all-Hong Kong cast is therefore in order to get this film made. Now the question for director and screenwriter Danny Pang is how many ways he can make a forest seem spooky for, as is often the case with a Pang film, whether solo or as the brothers, this is a thriller with a police procedural theme leading into a supernatural horror sequence and ending with science fiction. And therein lies the key problem with the film. If the director had decided to make a film in just one of these genres, it could have been very good. But the naturalism of the police investigation with the backing of a scientist working with plant biology is immediately sacrificed when it morphs into what looks, at first sight, to be supernatural, and then is completely destroyed by the science fiction explanation at the end. This is not to say that I instinctively reject detective stories that end up dealing with supernatural or science fictional threats. There have been films where consistency of tone makes the transition between the genres work well, e.g. Fallen (1998) in which a series of murders can only be explained if the detectives believe in angels, or Predator 2 (1990) in which the detective gets to fight for his life. But Forest of Death has no such consistency. It just jumps from one genre to another without feeling the need to bridge.

Qi Shu looking good in the greenery

 

So let’s get to the plot, such as it is. As the title suggests, a lot of people have gone missing or died in this forest. The largest percentage are suicides but, early in the film, Commissioner Wong (Suet Lam) sends Detective C C Ha (Qi Shu) to investigate the rape and murder of a fellow detective. Fairly quickly, she identifies Patrick Wong (Lawrence Chou) as the most probable killer. The problem is how to prove it. In a parallel thread, Shum Shu-hoi (Ekin Cheng) is trying to develop the technology to communicate with plants. This goes somewhat beyond the usual measurement of electrical fields, and suggests the possibility of the practical exchange of messages so long as the plants learn how to understand human emotions. He’s involved with May (Rain Li) who, as an investigative television journalist, is trying to make a name for herself by investigating the forest. Finally, we have the creepy old guy who lives on the fringes of the forest. Mr Tin (Siu-Ming Lau) whose granddaughter is one of those who has gone missing.

Ekin Cheng looking for a plant to talk with

 

When you put all this together, Detective Ha asks Shum to talk to the trees in the forest while Mr Tin keeps muttering darkly that no good will come of it all. We then have apparently supernatural things happening in broad daylight which is mildly innovative. Too often film-makers wait for night and hide third-rate special effects in the shadows. This has leaves falling, wind blowing, sudden fog appearing and trees apparently moving around as our accused is led into the forest and, with the press looking on, suddenly finds himself compelled to confess to the murder. It’s patently silly. With more bodies turning up, May wonders off into the forest in despair, thinking Shum has dumped her in favour of Ha. When she “disappears”, Ha, Shum and Mr Tin go in on a rescue mission when all is conveniently explained in science fiction terms (and the forest spits May out as being the wrong type).

 

If you think aliens would be fascinated by aspects of human psychology and so would sit patiently in a Thai forest waiting for people with the right mental characteristics to wander into their flytrap for scientific investigation, this is the film you’ve been waiting for. But if, like most sane people, you think aliens would sit quietly in a large city with a high suicide rate and pick up test subjects unobtrusively, then you need not bother watching this film. It will insult your intelligence. Put another way, Forest of Death or Sum yeun has cardboard characters and wooden acting in one of the daftest science fiction films of the decade and, unless like me, you have a death wish and so plumb the depths of cinema hoping to find the unheralded gems, you should give this a miss.

 

Other films directed by Danny or Oxide Pang:
Sleepwalker or Meng you (2011)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)

 

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