Friday, March 04, 2011

NYICFF ’11: Echoes of the Rainbow

Fifty years ago, there were still quiet family neighborhoods in Hong Kong, where everyone knew everyone’s business. Writer-director Alex Law pays tribute to this innocent world of his youth gone by in the unabashedly sentimental Echoes of the Rainbow (trailer here), Hong Kong’s recent official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which screens during the 2011 New York International Film Festival.

Shot on-location around historic Wing Lee Street, Rainbow saved that last remnant of “old” (meaning 1960’s era) Hong Kong from redevelopment after his partly autobiographical feature won the 2010 Berlin Film Festival’s Crystal Bear in the children’s division. Run down, but respectable, it is a neighborhood where a cobbler’s family might live. Times are difficult, but the Law Family sacrifices for the sake of older brother Desmond’s education. A star in the classroom and on the track field, all their hopes rest in him.

As for the slightly klepto younger brother, not so much. However, “Big Ears” has his own dreams of becoming an astronaut. This explains the fishbowl he often wears around town like a space-helmet. In fact, fish factor prominently in Rainbow. Desmond fights and bonds with his younger brother over the fish they keep. Fish also play a role in the older Law’s tentative courtship of the ridiculously cute Flora. Unfortunately, just about every imaginable tear-jerking complication will thwart their budding romance.

There is absolutely no irony in Rainbow—zero, none. Instead, it wears its heart on its sleeve, which is rather endearing. Buzz Chung is a legitimately charismatic young actor, who handles Big Ears’ heavy dramatic moments quite convincingly. Aarif Rahman and Evelyn Choi should also well satisfy tweener fans of sappy CW/WB youth soaps.

Yet, Simon Lam provides the real heart of the film as Mr. Law. His initial appearance is deceptively simple, a grunting man hunched over his workbench. Slowly but surely, Lam expresses with exquisite nuance all the dignity, humility, and desperation of a father who only wants a better life for his sons. It is also rewarding for American audiences to watch Lam in such a departure from his frequent gangster roles in Johnnie To movies (even though those are profoundly cool). Known more for comedic turns, Sandra Oh does a bit of fast-talking as Mrs. Law, but develops some genuinely touching chemistry with Lam. They are painfully believable as struggling parents and as a long married couple.

Shot with gauzy sensitivity by cinematographer Charlie Lam, every aspect of Rainbow aches with wistful nostalgia. Though it is certainly melodramatic at times, the film’s honesty and sweetness cannot be denied. Probably too tragic for small children, many parents and pre-teens should find it an engaging respite from the jaded cynicism of Hollywood. Yet another official foreign language Oscar submission that is considerably better than this year’s winner, Rainbow screens Saturday March 19th at the Asia Society as part of the 2011 NYICFF.