In Hong Kong, a complex relationship exists between siblings, Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung) and Wai-ching (Louis Koo) and their father, Dong (Ng Man-tat), a Taoist priest. But they all have at least one thing in common: a need for love and reassurance.

 

 

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HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The versatile Pang Ho-cheung harks back to the vivid, visual palette and the emotionalism of his 2006 film Isabella, but Aberdeen which opened this year’s Hong Kong’s International Film Festival, fails to colour in this extended family drama with sufficient complexity. Designed to represent Hong Kong in microcosm, the film recalls Paul Haggis’ LA portrait Crash (2004) and the film that set the template, John Sayles’ City of Hope (1991).

Aberdeen begins with Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung) daydreaming and smoking at a gun shelter in the old Hong Kong fort of Aberdeen where she works as a tour guide. Before Pang gets around to delivering the superimposed title for Aberdeen, he also introduces Wai-ching’s philandering radiologist husband (Eric Tsang), her model/aging sister (Gigi Leung), her sister’s husband (Louis Koo), their young daughter (Lee Man-kwai), and briefly, their widowed Taoist priest father (Ng Man-tat). It is not until the family gather at the dead grandmother’s tomb after the opening credits, that the relationships between the individuals become apparent. Deliberately taking the long way round, Pang invites the audience to ever so slowly contemplate the family’s emotional tensions and connections.

Likewise, it takes some time before Pang offers his audience a bone about the significance of the title. Much later in the film, the grandfather explains to his mistress (Carrie Ng) that the entire family are descended from the fisherman who lived and worked off Aberdeen’s beach and were housed (and the grandfather believes cursed) by the government to live on the land rather than cluttering up the shipping channels in 1938. Like a boy from a sick family who aspires to be a medical practitioner, the grandfather has become a Taoist priest in an effort to cure his family’s spiritual sickness.

The manifestations of the family ‘curse’ are, like most problems that belong to other people, largely trivial, but the film succeeds in conveying that they have great personal significance for each individual character. The other characters become aware of the other relative’s family problems, via family lunches that spiral into group arguments that are never ‘about’ what they are truly ‘about’.

Most of the drama in Aberdeen actually takes place around more urban Hong Kong and includes references to recent news stories like the finding of WWII bombs on downtown construction sites. A more apt title for the film would have been the road sign that reads ‘ALL DESTINATIONS’ that Tsang’s character identifies as bizarre (“How can a road lead to all destinations?”) and that was visually prominent on screen in an early sequence.

Wai-ching is haunted by the idea that her dead mother hated her, while her actress sister-in-law Ceci is troubled by her husband’s insistence that their daughter is not pretty. The daughter, is bullied at school, but won’t admit to it, and has already learned to hide her feelings just as her forbears do. This emotional intensity is relieved by some light-heartedness (Koo, for instance is an avid Star Wars memorabilia fan who buys life-size Storm Trooper models), but overall the tone is light brooding.

While the on-screen family are connected by their secret troubles, Pang offers other, less direct connections too. The young girl Chloe has a dream about her pet chameleon which runs amok Godzilla-style in a colourful cardboard reconstruction of Hong Kong. Later in the film, Wai-ching finds herself in the same dreamscape, as she travels by cardboard taxi to her childhood home where her mother still dominates. Depicted in reds and greens, his model environment is undeniably dazzling, but in terms of the story, this surrealistic continuity serves no purpose. No one can blame a filmmaker for indulging the beautiful and the economical, but the lack of symbolic connection between the young girl and her aunt, reduces the effect to a convenient contrivance. The story would have been better served if all of the characters found themselves in this dream space at some time, or if only one character had experienced it.

Adding to the suspicion that the film is padded by half-baked or superfluous add-ons is the male characters. While Tsang is always a delight on screen, his philandering radiologist is essentially a shallow man whose attractiveness is only explained by the actor’s performance. Likewise, the insecurities of the husband played by Koo, feels less amoral, but equally superficial. A less charming actor and a more emotionally stunted character combine to make this egotistical parent essentially dull. His problem is set up like a straw man to be explained away by Chapman To’s cameo as the philosophical manager of the Star Wars memorabilia store (and a product placement for the same).

In contrast, the emotional problems of the female characters have the detailed depth of real psychological crisis and in the case of Ceci, ample evidence that her husband cannot love her or her chunky daughter. It’s more than a suggestion that women have more emotional depth than men (though the world provides ample evidence for that argument); this lack of real engagement with the male characters rather reveals the men as cursory sketches rather than fully drawn characters.

Pang’s skill as a director ensures that everything feels right and the stirring score ensures that all the right emotional chords are plucked, but the film’s resolutions feel overly neat and in some instances are a narrative cheat. By the film’s end, the characters might feel more comfortable together, but in essence they are no closer as a family, with much of it achieved by almost effortlessly changing their mind. There’s nothing wrong with advocating a change in attitude, but again, only the women achieve this in a dramatic manner.

Details

1 hour 38 min

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