Mr Law (Simon Yam), a cobbler, and his wife Mrs Law (Sandra Ng), a saleswoman, live with their two children in a poor neighborhood. The eldest son (Aarif Lee) is an outstanding student and the youngest (Buzz Chung) wishes to be an astronaut one day. As their children grow up, the family encounters corruption, typhoons, class division and incurable disease.

Nostalgic melodrama in old Hong Kong plunges into pathos.

SYDNEY CHINESE FILM FESTIVAL: When a filmmaker turns his own autobiographical novel into a movie, one risk is that audiences won’t find the story anywhere near as compelling, moving or meaningful as the author intended.

So it proves with writer-director Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow, an exceedingly modest tale set in a barely recognisable corner of Hong Kong in the late 1960s.

The protagonist is 8-year-old 'Big Ears’ Law (Buzz Chong), who lives with his 16-year-old brother Desmond (Aarif Lee), hard-working father (Simon Yam) and pragmatic, doting mother (Sandra Ng) above dad’s shoe shop. An uncle, a barber, lives at the other end of the street, Wing Lee Street, in the Sheung Wan District.

Big Ears often wears a fish bowl on his head, perhaps because he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. For the first hour, the narrative meanders along with a series of vignettes, none of any great consequence. Big Ears is sometimes naughty, selling fake autographs of movie stars and ordering moon cakes which his parents can’t afford. Desmond, a star athlete, has a crush on a pretty girl at school (Evelyn Choi) but discovers her family is very rich and concludes she’s out of his league.

Depressed, Desmond’s grades start to suffer, leading to a heated confrontation with his dad, one of the movie’s few dramatic moments to that point. There is a whiff of corruption as the family is forced to pay small bribes to a Cantonese-speaking British policeman.

Then, with little warning, a typhoon strikes, causing havoc in their street, a well-orchestrated sequence which conveys the characters’ terror. But soon after the movie veers into corny melodrama and the mood becomes maudlin.

With his expressive face and endearing manner, Chong is terrific as Big Ears, despite an occasional tendency to mug and to shout his lines; he also possesses a heart-rending cry. In his acting debut Lee, a Canto-pop star, does as well as he can playing a fairly bland character but struggles with the demands of the role in the latter stages. Veterans Yam and Ng are typically solid and professional as the parents.

The soundtrack peppered with songs from The Monkees and several syrupy ballads is annoying. As a kid, Law may have loved that synthetic pop group but he might have spared the ears of today’s more discerning audiences.

Cinematographer Charlie Lam often bathes his sets in a soft golden light which presumably reflects the writer-director’s nostalgic feelings for a bygone era but makes parts of the movie look like an extended soap commercial.

Given its small scale and limited ambition, the film did well to win the Crystal Bear Award for Best New Generation Film at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival. There was another plus: publicity for the movie helped persuade the Hong Kong government to revoke a decree to demolish the row of heritage buildings in Wing Lee Street.