Sunday, April 20, 2014

ContemporAsian ’14: Bends

Anna Li is a lady who lunches. She is not Marie Antoinette. She simply is unprepared for the speed at which fortunes can reverse in Hong Kong. Her Mainland chauffeur is not a revolutionary. He simply wants a safe delivery for his pregnant wife, but they cannot afford the punitive second child fee. Each will face an economic crisis, but Fai’s will be exacerbated by geography in Flora Lau’s Bends (more sensibly known as “Crossing the Border” in Chinese language territories, trailer here), which launches the new season of ContemporAsian at MoMA.

Li organizes charity events and looks good on her husband’s arm at business functions. She seems quite satisfied with how things have turned out, even if her spouse is a bit of a shark and a player. The fact that he has not been home for several days does not seem to raise any red flags for her, but she definitely takes notice when her credit cards are declined. Finding their accounts drained or frozen, Li starts hocking the family art collection to keep up appearances in her social circle.

Meanwhile, Fai has his own problems. Although he has been granted HK citizenship, his wife Ting is still Mainland PRC. To hide her advanced pregnancy, she becomes a veritable prisoner in their Shenzhen flat. It is all very confusing for their little girl Haihai. Fai needs money to smuggle her across the border and a hospital admission letter to secure her a bed for delivery, but both are hard to come by for a man of his position.

Bends sounds about as hot-button as it gets, indicting HK’s laissez-faire economy on the right and the Communist Party’s unforgiving family planning on the left. Yet, the execution is decidedly quiet and intimate. Happily, Lau offers viewers character studies rather than white papers, but the first time director’s sense of pacing is still a bit flat. However, she gets a key assist from superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who makes it all look coolly elegant.

Yet, it is unquestionably Carina Lau who makes the film. Approaching legendary status, Lau still makes a convincing trophy wife, but it is her chops that truly impress in Bends. Despite Li’s outward reserve, Lau clearly expresses her mounting confusion and anxiety. At the risk of belaboring the point, Lau brilliantly pulls viewers into Li’s inner turmoil rather than resorting to the sort of bug-eyed arm-flailing Meryl Streep over-indulged in throughout Osage. What can we say? Lau is simply much better at their craft.

Understatement is all very well and good, but Chen Kun nearly wilts into the background as Fai. Nevertheless, a strong supporting cast keeps him propped up in key scenes. Even with limited screen time, Stephanie Che makes a lasting impression as Lulu, Fai’s old HK flame, who now works as a maternity nurse. As Ting and Haihai, Tian Yuan and young Tu Jiamen also humanize the story rather compellingly.

There is no denying the wider issues raised by Bends, but it is only zeitgeisty after the fact. In the moment, it is unflinchingly intimate in its focus. Recommended for fans of Lau and those who appreciate films helmed by women, with great roles for women, Bends screens Monday through Sunday (4/21-4/27) as part of MoMA’s regular ContemporAsian film series.