Friday, 1 December 2006

After This Our Exile 父子 (2006)

Down and out in Ipoh

For me, the early eighties will forever be the height of Hong Kong cinema. Filmmakers long schooled in television production discovered neorealism and began making many movies about social underclasses – the poor, the uneducated, street hooligans (not to be confused with John Woo gangsters), petty criminals, all leading their lives in run-down tenements, dreaming of striking it rich or emigrating before the dreaded 1997, but more often than not succumbing to ignominious, tragic ends.

All About Ah Long, starring Chow Yun Fat as a former bike racer and Sylvia Chang as the long-suffering old flame who left him, is the culmination of the neorealist movement in Hong Kong cinema. Yes, Chow’s Ah Long may have been illiterate, a wastrel, a womaniser, and a very nasty boyfriend who probably deserved to be dumped by Sylvia Chang. But he is genuinely devoted to their son, displays an occasional charm despite the squalor he has sunk to, and a bruised humanity shines through all the flaws that should make us hate the man. We cannot help but empathise and weep over the pathetic situation father and son are stuck in, and the more bleak fate that awaits Ah Long. That movie, with its neorealist sensibilities, sensitive script, unexpected humour, and a strong and nuanced performance by Chow Yun Fat, fully deserved the Best Actor award win, as well as its nominations for Best Film and Best Supporting Actor.

Long dormant as a director, Patrick Tam marks his return to directorial duties with After This, Our Exile, which reaches back to Hong Kong neorealism for inspiration. It’s All About Ah Long transplanted to a tiny and impoverished hamlet in Ipoh, with Aaron Kwok as the deadbeat dad, Charlie Young as the abused (but not battered) spouse, and Goum Ian Iskandar as their young son. An incurable gambler with a streak of violence, a sky-high debt from loan sharks, self-centred and perpetually aggrieved by perceived slights and disrespect from others, Kwok’s character is destined for a long decline and fall, and the only question is whether the little tyke will be brought down with him.

Young leaves the husband early in the film, after one too many broken promises that things will get better, that he will change, and that he really loves both mother and child – but this is the sort of movie that will slowly heap degradations on the father-son pair, until the straw breaks the back of the camel in a satisfying catharsis. After all, Kwok’s character is a car-wreck just waiting to happen, and when it happens, will just cuss at the driver for running into him, and then walk blithely into the next car wreck.

Yet in spite of its promising concept, Tam’s movie suffers from unbelievably bad and trite dialogue. This is the sort of dialogue that you hear every evening in the TCS 8 serial, that you’ve heard in every TCS 8 for the past few decades. Tam turns an interesting character into the sad sack, ne’erdo-well stock character from a TV melodrama, by taking away everything and anything that is likeable or even half-way human about him. Unlike any of the gritty and bleak neorealist dramas in the heyday of HK cinema, this movie is completely humourless, dragging the audiences to wallow in its unending pathos. It doesn’t even show the central flaw of the character properly, and isn’t the slightest bothered in character development. It should still work if Kwok’s character ends up destroying himself painfully and horribly while having his sole moment of self-realisation at the end, but that doesn’t even happen. Tam and his co-writer are interested only in hurling the father-son pair into one quagmire after another, but after an hour, the audience does tire of it. All that tedious piling on of minor tragedies, with no proper catharsis, and a botched, unsatisfying ending is unforgivable.

In other words, instead of giving us a HK neorealist movie, Patrick Tam and his collaborators have made the ultimate TCS 8 television drama. It’s one that Mediacorp and Jack Neo should be capable of producing, and producing a better product. I can’t imagine why this movie couldn’t have been a joint Malayan production, cast with actors from both sides of the Straits of Johor. It would be far preferable to this movie, because Tam has clearly forgotten that Ipoh Chinese residents speak mainly Hakka, not Cantonese, and never pure Mandarin – surely a director attempting a neorealist film set in Malaya would have his characters speak in authentic Straits patois? Tam’s decision to film this movie in Ipoh appears more economically motivated instead of any love and reverence for the region. After all, Hong Kong city’s slums have virtually disappeared, and one would have to travel far inland, far beyond Shenzhen to find a real slum. And surely, a director filming a movie about illiterate, poverty-stricken Chinese villagers in Ipoh would know much better than to hire a composer who drapes every other moment of the film in violin-piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky!

The deadbeat dad is written without much character development, without any redeeming qualities, without any meaningfully dramatic dialogue, and played without any nuances by Aaron Kwok. All he had to do in this movie was grow a sparse beard and moustache, talk loudly in a vaguely threatening manner, gesticulate widely, and stare into the camera, which went for too many close-ups on his face without letting the audience look at Kwok’s body language. Plummeting towards certain doom, the character doesn’t get destroyed, but neither do you see the crucial reformation and turnaround. Judging from what we could see on the screen, I find it preposterous that Aaron Kwok could actually win a Best Actor Award with this performance, with such stilted dialogue, and such a turgid, featureless script could win a Best Film Award.

If every former teenybopper had to be rewarded with a Best Actor Award just because they decide to play against type, then it’s clear that the Hong Kong and Taiwanese film industries should be allowed to ride quietly into the sunset, and Golden Horse Awards be shut down.

First published at incinemas on 7 December 2006

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