Nomad (Patrick Tam, 1982)

Nomad (Patrick Tam, 1982)

The following is a re-edited and slightly-modified version of the review I wrote for InReview Online's coverage of the New York Asian Film Festival in the summer of 2023.

One of the finest films of the Hong Kong New Wave, Patrick Tam’s Nomad plays at this year’s NYAFF in a new restoration, advertised as a “Director’s Cut”. As near as I can figure, the only real difference between this version and the one that was initially released, as well as the one I watched on DVD ten years ago, are a few extra shots in some of the sex and violence scenes. Otherwise the film remains unchanged: I recall rumors that Tam initially had a different, even bloodier finale in mind, but I don’t think it was ever filmed. The films of the New Wave are ripe for (re-)discovery, as for too long the only ways to see them have been poor quality DVDs, VHS ports, and other detritus scrounged-up on private trackers.

Emerging in the late 1970s, the Hong Kong New Wave was a loose collection of young directors who jumped from television to independent film, most after having spent some time studying and working abroad. Like most international New Waves, these directors brought a new immediacy to their home cinema, filming realistic stories on real locations with live sound. Unlike most other New Waves though, the Hong Kongers’ films remained firmly within the genre system that defined their colony’s commercial cinema, not to subvert or parody genre conventions (as in certain films in the new generations of French or Japanese or American cinema) but to explore and complicate them. Partially this was a matter of commercial pressure: there was very little space for true “art house” movies in Hong Kong. But it’s also I think simply a key part of their artistic vision. Tam’s debut The Sword, for example, is not much different in plot or style than the kinds of wuxias Chor Yuen and Chang Cheh were making for Shaw Brothers at the same time. The difference is in the tension between the genre elements and the immediacy of Tam’s realism and the constructedness of his images, as carefully designed and framed as the work of Antonioni.

These tensions are most apparent in Nomad. For the most part, it’s an ambling romantic comedy about a quartet of directionless young people who pair off into two couples. Leslie Cheung, on the brink of superstardom but not there yet, plays Louis, a wealthy introvert who meets Tomato (Cecilia Yip), a vivacious woman with a complicated romantic past. Pat Ha plays Louis’s cousin Kathy, who embarks on a primarily physical relationship with poor kid Pong (Kent Tong). Tam fills this section of the movie with awkward encounters, teen hijinks, and extended riffs on how difficult it is to find a place to have sex when you live in a tiny apartment with your parents and siblings (the obvious solution: the top of a double-decker bus). There’s a sadness underlying it all though, emanating primarily through Cheung’s melancholy performance (mourning his dead mother by listening to old recordings of her radio show and posing forlornly against the beautiful walls of his parents’ home, a space occupied by his step-mother but not his father). But also the fact that none of these kids, full of life as they are, seem to have any hope for the future. No jobs, no prospects, no real interests outside of each other and looking cool. The characters, like Tam’s images of them, seem to have sprung to life from a fashion magazine. But once alive, they have no idea what to do next.

Action comes, finally if not mercifully, in the form of a Japanese man. One of Kathy’s old boyfriends, a refugee from the left-wing terrorist group the United Red Army named Shinsuke (Yung Sai-kit, aka Stuart Ong, he played another Red Army vet in 1988’s In the Line of Duty III). Shinsuke is in hiding and Kathy stashes him on her boat: if his former compatriots find him, they’ll force him to commit seppuku as a deserter, and there’s a gallery curator with ferocious bangs on his trail. The violence, when it comes, is highly discordant, fracturing Nomad’s world of gorgeous apathy with a visceral horror. Like if you’d tacked the climax of Lady Snowblood onto the last reel of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee.

Tam wasn’t alone in turning slice-of-life stories of Hong Kong’s youth into stories of sliced-up-lives. Yim Ho’s The Happening preceded Nomad by a couple of years, turning a rambunctious teen car comedy into a horrific nightmare of bloody revenge, while Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters-First Kind, also released in 1980, saw the indolent, futureless youth as a source of mayhem–bomb-throwing and animal-torturing nihilists acting out against everything they see. Tam’s vision is slightly different though. His youth are much more appealing, in both their attractiveness and that of their surroundings. And the violence they encounter is visited upon them through no apparent fault of their own. In Yim and Tsui’s films, the kids are the perpetrators of violence, though the root cause is found within Hong Kong’s position as a colonial outpost of laissez-faire capitalism. In Nomad, the kids are just as hemmed in on all sides with just as little hope for a meaningful future, and they respond to it not with anger or cruelty, but by looking cool and falling in love. But inevitably, violence will come for them, and in the most absurd and unexpected way possible.