Thursday, November 13, 2014

HK Cinema at SFFS ’14: Aberdeen

Cheng Tung was once a fisherman in Aberdeen Harbor, but he now works as a Taoist priest, specializing in the “Breaking Hell” ceremony. Unfortunately, the patriarch cannot break the Hell of his own family. Resentments will be nursed and neuroses will run wild in Pang Ho-cheung’s Aberdeen (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

All the Chengs have their own problems, particularly little Chloe. She is dealing with bullies at school and her ailing chameleon, Greenie. Her parents are outwardly supportive and engaged, but her father Cheng Wai-tao has come to privately doubt whether he truly is her father. She just doesn’t seem cute enough to be the daughter of the super-slick motivational speaker and his actress-model wife, Cici. At least, she was an actress-model. Gigs have become scarce and getting scarcer, as she proceeds to get steadily older.

Meanwhile, Chloe’s uncle Yau Kin-cheung is having a reckless affair with his much younger but increasingly codependent nurse, while his oblivious wife (Wai-tao’s older sister) struggles with her unresolvable mother issues. Unfortunately, Cheng Tung is not allowed to exercise much authority. Offended by his relationship with a bar hostess, his son has almost completely frozen the old man out.

For HK cinema fans who primarily know Pang for his naughty screwball comedy Vulgaria and the gory satire Dream Home, the sensitive family drama of Aberdeen will be quite a revelation. While there are distinctive fantastical interludes, particularly the Kaiju Greenie rampaging through the scale model streets of Hong Kong, it is still thoroughly grounded and often quite subtle. On paper, the beached whale that becomes a focal point for the Chengs and the unexploded WWII ordinance discovered near Yau’s flat sound like face-palmingly heavy handed symbolism, yet Pang never overplays them.

Regardless what her father says, young Lee Man-kwai’s Chloe is all kinds of cute and she anchors the film very effectively. However, it is Gigi Leung who really lands the knock-out punch as Cici. There have been a number of films about actresses struggling to maintain their careers as time flies, one of the most notable being Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Yet, as great as Juliette Binoche is in that film, the audience never comes to know and understand her character as we do Leung’s Cici. She has a few key scenes that will just cut your legs out from under you. She also looks great, as does Dada Chan who appears in an extended cameo playing a character much like her pre-Vulgaria persona, probably as a thank you to Pang for her award-winning breakout role.

It is rather remarkable how many interconnected relationships Pang and his all-star cast are able to fully flesh out. Surprisingly potent but never overbearing, Pang’s Aberdeen captures the messiness of life with honesty and affection. Highly recommended, it screens this Sunday (11/16) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema series.