Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ann Hui's "The Way We Are" (天水围的日与夜)

I hope more people will get to see Ann Hui's latest film "The Way We Are" (天水围的日与夜). But I doubt it will get mass screening in Singapore, even though it won best director, best screen play, best actress and best supporting actress at the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards.

I suspect that the typical Singaporean movie goer, who prefers the typical Hollywood fares, will find "The Way We Are" too slow-moving and boring, and that the film is unlikely to do well at the box office. For this reason, I believe the cinemas in Singapore will not be too keen to screen the film.

Still, I hope this quietly charming film will at least be shown at the Picture House.

Film review by Kozo:

Tin Shui Wai is a place where bad things happen - or so the Hong Kong media has been quick to tell us. A northwestern New Territories town, the Tin Shui Wai New Town emerged in the 1990s thanks to land reclamation and financial help from the Hong Kong Government. Unfortunately, the town currently suffers from widespread unemployment, leading to domestic violence, suicide, triad activity, and plenty of bad stuff that, again, the Hong Kong media has been quick to tell us about. Exacerbating that was the unfortunate October 2007 incident when a mother and her two children reportedly leapt to their deaths from one of the area's high-rise housing estates. The negative media attention and public perception of the town as a "City of Sadness" are reasons that Lawrence Lau's Beseiged City, a 2007 drama taking place in Tin Shui Wai, has been chided for sensationalizing the city's woes.

However, there is another side to Tin Shui Wai, namely the side where people get up in the morning, live their lives, and contribute the best they can to their communities. Ann Hui's HD-video docudrama, The Way We Are gives voice to these other, less sensational residents of Tin Shui Wai, and manages to give their lives weight and depth, while also not glorifying their working-class honesty. Despite the title and presumed intentions, The Way We Are is not didactic or moralizing - it's just real, in all its serene, mundane, everyday glory. The more cinematically inclined could knock the film for its lack of action and its snail's pace, but Hui seems unconcerned with telling anything resembling a true narrative with a beginning, middle, or end. The Way We Are picks up the threads in people's lives, follows them, and reveals nothing more than unglamourous reality.

Bau Hei-Jing (Lost in Time) stars as Mrs. Cheung, who lives with teenage son Ka-On (Juno Leung). Mrs. Cheung works part-time in the local Wellcome supermarket, while Ka-On lazes about their home and occasionally attends church fellowship meetings, where he may or may not admire one of his church mentors. Life occurs when the two befriend a new neighbor (Chan Wai-Lun), an elderly woman who lives alone, and soon joins Mrs. Cheung at her workplace. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cheung's mother enters the hospital, and Mrs. Cheung is too busy to visit right away, but Ka-On visits from time to time, bringing soup with him. Meanwhile, their neighbor needs a light bulb changed, but she's too old and unwilling to do it. Will Ka-On help her change her light bulb? And will Mrs. Cheung ever visit her mom in the hospital?

It may sound like I'm mocking The Way We Are, but I'm just trying to poke fun at standard moviegoing expectations. Oftentimes we expect active narratives and characters in our movies, and indeed, some films could be called to task for not delivering those effectively. The Way We Are, however, is not one of those films, and its aims can plainly be seen in the Chinese title: Tin Shui Wai Dik Yat Yue Ye, meaning "Tin Shui Wai At Day and Night". This is a simple story about regular people, and Ann Hui breathes credibility and affection into her characters and their lives by choosing not to overdo the film. Her approach is decidedly quiet, utilizing sparing amounts of music or manipulative technique, and making no attempt to cajole the audience into the role of active participant. The viewer's role here is passive, much like the characters themselves, who react naturally and without forced emotion or incident. The result is not action-packed, and The Way We Are proves so unexciting as to soporific. Yes, this movie can put a person to sleep, and if you've had a glass of wine and only 3-4 hours sleep the previous evening, expect a nap attack.

Again, however, that's not cause to deride the film. The Way We Are is not a classic, as it never surpasses its humble aims, but Hui's hand is assured enough to make this a worthy visit. The director displays extraordinary confidence and control in that she resists the temptation to make the film more than what it truly is. The characters lives never threaten to become the stuff of melodrama, and though details are revealed about the history of the characters and the town, little qualifies as an outright dramatic revelation. The emotions here are simple and respectful ones, and show us that the people of Tin Shui Wai have a heart and soul. Living there is like living anywhere else; it's full of ups and downs, small successes and setbacks, and people who are worth getting to know if you just give them a chance. The Way We Are makes Tin Shui Wai seem like home.

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