Saturday, January 23, 2021

Animated Contender: No. 7 Cherry Lane

How could Hong Kong be the site of “anti-colonial” demonstrations in the 1960’s, yet the United Nations refuses to designate it a former colony? Because to do so would entail certain international legal statuses that would be inconvenient for the CCP, so the UN obediently obliges them. This animated feature takes us back to that old pre-Asian Tiger Economies, pre-handover, pre-“National Security” Law Hong Kong. Viewers can revisit SAR when it was very much an assemblage of “local” communities and customs, in Yonfan’s Oscar-contending animated feature No. 7 Cherry Lane, which is currently screening in MoMA’s virtual cinema.

It is an interesting time to live in HK, but as a refugee from Taiwan’s “White Terror,” forty-year-old Mrs. Yu has already seen it all and worse. She and her 18-year-old daughter Meiling, a student and part-time fashion model, settled into a modest but comfortable new life in the North Point “Little Shanghai” neighborhood. However, Meiling was lagging behind in her English studies, so Mrs. Yu hired Ziming, a collegiate English lit scholar, to tutor her.

When he arrives, both mother and daughter find themselves attracted to him, but Ziming asks out Mrs. Yu, the divorcee. Of course, their relationship would be scandalous in 1960s Hong Kong, which is one reason why most of their rendezvouses take place in darkened movie theaters. Ziming also happens to be a fan of Simone Signoret, whose films (like
Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey) seem to parallel their own relationship.

The Signoret seen on the movie palace screen becomes a character in her own right, in a very cool way. Shifting from the pastel color palate to an arresting black-and-white, Yonfan portrays her as a literally larger than life diva. Indeed, his use of films like
Room and Ship of Fools, as well as novels like Remembrance of Time Past and Dream of the Red Chamber (depicted in a long, surreal, sexually-charged dream sequence) add a lot of depth and texture to the film.

Cherry Lane is richly distinctive and occasionally very trippy, but it is always grounded in the middle- and working-class neighborhoods of HK. This is the Hong Kong of mom-and-pop shops and corner noodle restaurants. It inspires nostalgia for a bygone era. It is also surprisingly erotic at times and even includes some brief but explicit gay subject matter, so it is hard to see the current Beijing-dominated government embracing this film.

In fact, it shows HK cops racking down hard on protestors. In this case, they were misguided activists inspired by the Cultural Revolution (which the CCP is trying to pretend never happened). Regardless, the Mainland film industry would never produce such an openly sexual film, so enjoy it while you can from Hong Kong.

The great Sylvia Chang is absolutely terrific as the voice of Mrs. Yu. We do not need to dwell on the math, but she is a generation or two older than her character, but she still makes her sound warm and seductive, especially in conversation with Alex Lam’s earnest Ziming. Natalia Duplessis and Jiang Wenli both crank up the vampiness as Signoret and the coquettish “Woman in Yellow,” while Kelly Yao vocally projects the “grand dame” presence of refugee Shanghai opera star, Mrs. May. Zhao Wei sounds surprisingly convincing giving voice to Meiling, despite the age disparity, but her character is definitely the weakest link of
Cherry Lane.

Yonfan slightly loses control of the third act symbolic reveries, but he has still crafted some unusually striking imagery.
Cherry Lane shows us a Hong Kong that we can’t see anymore, with a sexual frankness that we can expect to be curtailed in future HK film productions. As a result, the sense of nostalgia and loss is heavy throughout the film, for many reasons, but it is also intoxicatingly seductive. Very highly recommended, No. 7 Cherry Lane screens for members through February 4th, via MoMA’s virtual cinema.