If Stephen Chow made you want to stop believing in mermaids, Sylvia Chang might give you reason to reconsider. A mermaid always figured prominently in the bedtime stories Yu-mei and Yu-nan’s mother told them. Actually, it was the same ever-evolving story. Divided by circumstances, the grown siblings will struggle with their difficult legacy in Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society.
Note the plural of the hearts to distinguish Chang’s latest directorial effort from Louis Malle’s 1971 film. The settings in Taipei and Taiwan’s Green Island (Lyudao) are also quite distinctive. It was once primarily known as a penal colony, but the latter has starting doing a brisk tourist business in recent years. Yu-nan currently works there as a tour guide, because he stayed with their stern father, while Yu-mei is now a promising artist in the capitol, because she left with their more supportive mother. Inevitably, their separation led to resentments against the parent and sibling each felt rejected by.
Arguably, Yu-mei’s boyfriend Hsiang fits right in. He is a terrible boxer, but he keeps plugging away, driven by his own parental issues. However, a series of crises—Yu-mei’s pregnancy, the loss of Hsiang’s license, the declining health of the father Yu-nan still cares for, and a massive monsoon might provide a catalyst for healing.
Disappointingly, the eternally amazing Chang always stays behind the camera, but that largely leaves the spotlight to Macanese superstar Isabella Leong (last seen with Jet Li in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), who clearly hasn’t lost a step in seven years. She is just quietly and profoundly devastating as Yu-mei. Lawrence Ko is also rigorously understated as Yu-nan, managing to hold his own quite well. He also forges some exquisitely delicate chemistry with Angelica Lee Sin-je, playing their mother in the film’s several fantastical reveries.
At times, Chang pushes the dreamy New Age vibe a bit too far, but she distills so much raw emotion and truth into key sequences they will really knock viewers for a loop. She is clearly a thesp’s director, coaxing the charismatic but sometimes not so expressive Joseph Chang to one of his best performances as Hsiang. She and co-screenwriter Yukihiko Kageyama give him his moment, which he delivers on.