Saturday, July 11, 2020

SFFILM HK Cinema ’20: Still Human

It is a time of blacklists and potential reprisals for Hong Kong artists who support HK’s democratic aspirations and traditional way of life. Anthony Wong Chau-sang has been told he is not on the “official” list, but his job offers from major HK studios still dried up, even before the imposition of the Orwellian “National Security” law. Yet, the world-famous star (who is openly flirting with accepting Taiwanese citizenship) has maintained his high-profile career and artistic integrity in indie films and legit theater. Ironically, he could very well be expressing his progressive values even more now in projects like Oliver Chan Siu-kuen’s Still Human, which screens tomorrow as the opening film of SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Leung Cheong-wing is difficult to handle, but it is hard to blame the former construction worker for his bitterness. A freak accident consigned him to a wheelchair, requiring an in-home care-giving (in his tiny “two bed room” flat). The only nurses willing to accept such a gig are from the Philippines, but they never stay long, because of his temper. Evelyn Santos is the latest recruit, but family difficulties back home give her a strong motivation to stay.

Even before the accident, Leung was largely alienated from his family. However, his younger former co-worker Cheung Fai provides a bit of a support network. Initially, Leung is gruffly dismissive of Santos and she tries to play dumb in response, but as anyone who has seen Intouchables or dozens of other films can predict, a rapport starts to grow between them. Soon, the old grouch is even encouraging her dreams of a photography career, sometimes without her even knowing it.

This will probably sound somewhat conventional and predictable to American patrons, but films addressing themes of disability, aging, and immigrant workers (strictly legal in Santos’s case) have considerably more novelty in Hong Kong—and they are likely to get even rarer, given the chilling effect of Beijing’s crackdown on HK liberties. Regardless, Leung is a perfect role for Wong’s talents and sensibilities. Never indulging in mawkish shtick, Wong plays the cranky codger with usual subtlety and complexity. There is a halting, start-stop pace to the development of his relationship with Santos, which gives it credibility.

Likewise, Crisel Consunji is realistically guarded playing Santos, as well she would be, while still projecting her inner fragility. They are both so grounded and understated, Sam Lee provides some welcome upbeat energy as the more outgoing Fai. Award-winning HK thesp Cecilia also deserves credit for gracing the indie production, really putting a stamp on it with her relatively brief performance as Cheung’s estranged sister Jing-ying.

his is a well-intentioned cinematic statement, an excellent showcase for Wong, and a very nice film, but not a great one. Still, watching Wong is always a worthy way to spend your time. It also happens to be a HK film we can still screen in good conscience. Indeed, SFFILM did terrific work curating this year’s HK series, only programming films expressing empathy for those marginalized by Hong Kong society (if not actually overtly political), such as Wong Chun’s Mad World. See these films while you can—they may not be making any more like them, if Beijing persists in its current, oppressive policies. Recommended for fans of Wong and socially-conscious drama, Still Human screens virtually tomorrow (7/12), kicking off this year’s film series. Glory to Hong Kong!