Weeds on Fire (Chan Chi-fat, 2016)
One of the three new films playing at SIFF this weekend as part of their miniseries commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, along with Mad World and Cook Up a Storm, Weeds on Fire was one of the surprise hits of 2016 in Hong Kong. The based on true events story follows the founding of the Shatin Martins baseball team, and plays as a more or less conventional, and conventionally uplifting, sports story, albeit with a harder edge to its story of high school youth than we see here in America. Think of it as A League of Their Own, but for the kids from Dangerous Encounters — First Kind (the English title is consciously recalling such rebellious Ringo Lam films as City on Fire and School on Fire, the film’s Chinese title means “Half a Step”, which is more generically sports-centric.)
It's set in 1984, the year of the Joint Declaration that ceded Hong Kong to the PRC, at a high school in Shatin, one of the neighborhoods in the New Territories, the area north of the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island that became part of the colony in 1898. As the colony’s population boomed with the influx of refugees after World War II and the Communist victory in the civil war, the New Territories, a largely rural area, began to be developed to ease the housing crunch. Shatin was established in the 1970s, and its population has boomed from 30,000 at that time to over 630,000 today, most of whom live in some form of public housing, the first development of which opened in 1976. The second development, Wo Che Estate, is where the film is set. A teacher at the local high school, desperate to give his students something to do other than beat each other up in petty gang wars, forms a baseball team and conscripts a dozen or so kids. We follow two best friends, one shy (Lung, played by Lam Yiu-sing), the other outgoing and arrogant (Wai, played by Tony Wu, in a performance which earned him numerous Best Newcomer nominations, including a win at the Hong Kong Film Awards). The drama here is strictly generic, the sweetness only tempered a bit by bursts of juvenile violence.
The main arc of the drama, about how Lung learns to be a better man, more confident, more assertive, through the failures of his friend and the wonders of team sports, is barely of interest, but as a metaphor for the formation of a community identity, the film is noteworthy. Children of refugees, lost in the backwash of Hong Kong’s laissez-faire economic boom, the kids of Shatin are lacking in the rootedness that is essential for a sense of community. Isolated and structureless, they’re at the mercy of the powerful and cruel. The baseball team gives them a sense of place, the feeling that they are a part of something greater than themselves, essential to any functional society. The lack of rootedness by the children of the refugee generation is I think the dominant theme of Hong Kong cinema in the New Wave era, visible more or less explicitly in everything from art films like Days of Being Wild and Song of the Exile, to pulp genre fare like School on Fire and A Moment of Romance, almost always expressed with a kind of nihilist rage at the failures of institutions governmental, economic, and familial. Preferring the easy saccharine of sports film clichés, Weeds on Fire doesn’t really wrestle with the process in any kind of depth, but it’s there: an alternate way out for a lost generation.