High Noon (2008) - October 27, 2014
Made when she was only 23 years old, director Heiward Mak’s first feature feels more like a “first feature” than anything I’ve seen in quite awhile. She throws every technique she can think of up on the screen: changes in color stock and filter, off-kilter camera angles (upside down!), gorgeous urban locations seen in new ways, narration, ellipsis, an eclectically cool score, teenage moodiness and shocking bursts of violence. This is the Hong Kong chapter of a trilogy of films about youth produced by Eric Tsang (the other parts are set in Taiwan and Mainland China) and directed by young filmmakers. It’s more reminiscent of Iwai Shunji’s 2001 film All About Lily Chou-chou than any of Mak’s later work. The mood is really depressing, Mak’s later films are both more assured stylistically and emotionally balanced. The unrelenting disasters that befall the poor boys in this film (every main character is a boy, the girls they meet are side victims at best) are overwhelming. The sadness and terrible violence were enough to drive my wife away: with five minutes left in the film she finally walked out. I guess I’m more desensitized than she is.
Regardless, it’s a different kind of youth film than those produced by the Hong Kong New Wave thirty years earlier, and I’m not exactly sure why. Films like Nomad, The Happening, and Dangerous Encounters—First Kind certainly had their share of terrible things befalling kids for no apparent reason, but those movies had the sense of an entire world out of balance, the tragedies the kids stumble into, intentionally and by accident, as much a product of the random whims of the universe as anything else. There are lunatic highs that balance the crazy lows. High Noon feels different, in that there is only tragedy: every nice moment is followed by a deadly kicker (a boy shows off and charms a cute girl, their relationship ends in disease and prostitution, for example). It isn’t so much a world that doesn’t make sense as a world that is designed simply to grind its heroes into dust.
Diva (2012) — November 15, 2014
Heiward Mak’s third film as director, an exposé of the dark side of music superstardom starring real-life music superstar Joey Yung. Unlike her other features, the film is straightforward in its chronology, aside from a 10 minute prologue that jumps around a bit in time. The plot centers on two women, one an established star (Yung) the other just starting out (Meg Lam), and the machinations of their ruthless manager, played by Chapman To with a delightfully matter-of-fact amorality. Like all of her other features, Mak shows an eye for glossy colors and striking compositions. Maybe it’s a reflection of the highly artificial milieu, but there’s an emptiness to her style here, it’s missing the warmth and humanity of Ex or Uncertain Relationships Society. The performances are good, down to small supporting roles for Kara Hui(!) as the owner of a bar where Lam sings and director Clement Cheng (Gallants) as a skeevy music producer. The stories of the two singers aren’t all that interesting (they both essentially boil down to: “Can a woman be a star and still find a man to love?” Blergh.), and the songs are pretty terrible. I like to think that there are depths to the lyrics of Chinese pop music that are impossible to translate into English, but sometimes I wonder if it really is just deliriously corny nonsense.