Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Floating Island: From the Harbor to the Boardroom

Bo Wah Chuen’s chronicle is somewhat like the flipside of a James Clavell novel.   The adopted son of “Tanka” boat people, Bo would become the first Chinese Taipan of the British Imperial East India Company—sort of.  Issues of identity will hound the Horatio Alger character throughout Yim Ho’s “based on a true story” Floating City (trailer here), which releases on DVD and BluRay today from Well Go USA.

Images of Hong Kong’s hardscrabble harbor community have become iconic, but they always represented the bottom rung of the Crown Colony’s social ladder.  As a mixed race baby adopted by a Tanka family, Bo was the lowest of the low.  His mother was ethnic Chinese.  His father was not.  At the time, Bo’s adoptive parents projected the need for another son to work with his father.  However, his parents proved to be more fertile than the early 1960’s economy.  As a result, several of Bo’s younger siblings are sent to a Christian orphanage while the family struggles to right itself.

Bo’s path to success will not be a straight uphill climb.  He will drop out of elementary school several times, when already a young man of working age.  His fortunes will turn when the East India Company hires him as an office boy.  Yet, even then it will take years for his virtue to be rewarded, as he labors under Dick Callahan, a ridiculously caricatured lout, who oozes racism from every sweaty pore.  Nonetheless, Bo will eventually catch the eye of the last British Taipan and earn the confidence of Fion Hwang, a mover-and-shaker who will tutor him in the particulars of Hong Kong power politics.  It all leads to feelings of increasing inadequacy for his shy Tanka wife Tai, especially the part about the glamorous Hwang.

As the future Taipan, Aaron Kwok does not look the least little bit British, let alone a full half, despite the bizarre red tinting applied to his hair.  Regardless, this just might be the role of career.  Frankly, many who closely follow Asian cinema might be surprised the Cantopop star had it in him.  Even though he is stuck rhetorically asking “who am I?” far too often, he gives a slow burning, fully dimensional performance as the driven outsider of outsiders.  Kwok and Yim walk quite the fine line, never allowing Bo to sellout his self-respect, yet maintaining a distinctly flexible approach to his corporate superiors.

Beyond Kwok, Floating’s ensemble is a mixed bag, leaning more towards the positive side of the ledger.  Both Josie Ho and Nina Paw are quite touching as Bo’s younger and older adoptive mother, respectively.  Annie Liu is also a smart, luminous presence as Hwang, but you have to wonder what kind of expat dive bar they go to in order to recruit western actors like this.  Egads, can’t any of them pull off a simple line reading?

Over the course of the film, Floating anti-British biases get a bit tiresome, but its treatment of Christianity is considerably more nuanced.  In fact, Yim and co-writer Marco Pong clearly suggest it greatly contributes to the perseverance of Bo’s sainted mother. 

Ultimately, comparisons to Clavell are rather apt, considering Floating’s large cast of characters and decades-spanning narrative.  It has its flaws, but Kwok is a far more memorable Taipan than Bryan Brown or Pierce Brosnan (at least the former had Joan Chen’s support).  Many cineastes will forgive the clunky bits, taking satisfaction from HK New Wave veteran Yim’s return to ambitious, large scale filmmaking.  Worth checking out as a rags-to-riches tale with considerable local color, Floating City is now available for home viewing options from Well Go USA.