The most-underrated film of the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell. In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” she pronounced). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while reminiscing about her previous relationship with the man, the boyfriends she had after their original break-up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest guy. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.
Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever, with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good television, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.
Added December 31, 2014:
I was very excited to see director Heiward Mak and her production company had made this available on YouTube earlier this month. It was one of my favorite films from the Vancouver Film Festival, and the one I liked that no one else I knew had seen. Now people would finally get the chance to see what they’d missed. But unfortunately, it turns out the the version posted is the TV series cut of the film, which is not nearly as good.
During the festival Q & A, Mak said there were actually three cuts of the film. A 118-minute feature version, to play in festivals (it played in San Francisco’s Hong Kong mini-festival as well as VIFF); a longer, two-part miniseries version; and a shorter, five-episode TV version. The YouTube version is this third cut, with the episodes all run together, complete with opening and closing credits and “previously on” and “next time on” montages every 25 minutes or so. That alone would be enough to make the experience of watching it arhythmic, but it also appears to have been re-edited and (I think) partially re-scored.
What had been a delicately-woven network-narrative winding back and forth across 6 years in the life of eight 20-something Hong Kongers is made much more conventional, with character and relationship arcs more isolated within individual episodes, which has the effect of making the stories both more conventional and more choppy. It seems designed to fit more fully the generic expectations of TV melodrama (five minutes into every episode there’s a bit of slow-motion, with characters frolicking leading to one looking wistfully at the other), with the faster pace the stories become less nuanced, more banal. The emotional buildup more manufactured. New juxtapositions between scenes and dialogue (and score, so repetitive in the first few episodes) make themes more explicit, tilting what had been a refreshingly earnest romance distressingly close to the edge of cornball sophistry.
It’s possible that was already there to begin with, and that for whatever reason I just happened to fall under the film’s spell at the festival and overlooked its shortcomings. That’s not unusual in that kind of environment at all. Hopefully the festival version will make it out there, though Mak has said it won’t get an official release.