This unnamed teenager is a lot like Japanese singer-songwriter Yui’s character in Taiyou no Uta (Midnight Sun) and whoever in the lame American remake. She too is allergic to the sun’s ultraviolet rays—or so she has always been told. However, she is not a singer, but perhaps her mother was—and maybe still is—or not. She is an outsider in Pearl Village, Hong Kong’s last surviving fishing hamlet, but in some ways that helps her appreciate what it represents in Jenny Suen & (co-director) Christopher Doyle’s The White Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.
All her life, the “White Girl” has hid beneath floppy hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing, because her controlling fisherman father assured her she must. Given her resulting pale skin and shy manner, the villagers dubbed her “White Girl” or even “Ghost” and have become convinced she can contaminate their nets with bad mojo with a hard stare. Her only friend is Ho Zai, a scampish little boy living with an eccentric Buddhist monk, at least until Sakamoto, an emotionally damaged Japanese expat fleeing his troubles, starts squatting in the decrepit colonial mansion overlooking the bay.
For the most part, the White Girl and Sakamoto are drawn to each other, because they sense the shared empathy and comradery of a fellow wounded spirit. However, there is also an element of creepy sexual attraction that Sakamoto scrupulously represses. Yet, she will still lose much of her innocence for other reasons, as she comes to doubt the validity of everything her father ever told her. Meanwhile, the resourceful Ho Zai uncovers evidence of the mayor’s plan to sell out the village to a consortium of Mainland investors.
White Girl is a more focused and conventional film than Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy, which Suen produced, but it is still much more concerned with mood and vibe than crass plot points. Without doubt, we can see its aesthetic kinship with some of the classic Wong Kar-wai films he shot. It is a quiet, lulling film, but fortunately Angela Yuen and Joe Odagiri can emote though the humid languor as the girl and the squatter. Jeff Yiu is also unusually charismatic for a young thesp as Ho Zai, while Rayna Lee adds some unlikely sympathetic glamor as the village school teacher, Miss Wong. However, Leung Kin-ping probably scores the most points for dramatics with his poignant turn as the girl’s clueless father.
Honestly, nobody would have accused Suen & Doyle of selling out if they had cranked up the narrative a little. Clearly, they believe meandering is part of the journey. Of course, the symbolism of the hyper-connected Mainland developers out to obliterate Pearl Village’s way of life is tough to miss, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t still needed. Regardless, the mostly attractive and uniformly expressive ensemble redeems the stylistic excesses. Recommended as an evocative and elegiac coming of age film, The White Girl screens again this Monday (4/16), as part of this year’s SFFILM.