Hong Kong/China, 2016, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 111 mins.
Director: Luo Yaohui 罗耀辉 [Andy Lo].
Veteran Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] triumphs in a strong feature debut by writer-director Luo Yaohui [Andy Lo].
Hong Kong, Dec 2014. Following his mother’s death in Guangzhou, China, to where she had moved back after her divorce five years ago, Chen Jiexu (Chen Jiale) returns to his native Hong Kong. He tries to contact his father but the latter, who’s remarried, isn’t interested in meeting him. After being sacked from his job in a small restaurant by the abusive owner (Shao Yinyin), Chen Jiexu helps an old lady with her shopping and they talk for a while back at her flat. He’s behind on his rent and needs to find a new place to stay, but his mechanic friend, Fa (Wu Yekun), says he can’t put him up. Chen Jiexu sleeps on the streets, where he bumps into Gan (Zhang Jicong), a cook at the government-supported Beloved Complex Community Centre 爱心综合服务中心. Because he needs a fixed address to get a job there, Chen Jiexu persuades the old lady he helped, Xie Wanfen (Hui Yinghong), to take him in as a tenant, though she does so only under strict conditions. At the centre Chen Jiexu is shown the ropes by young Mainland student Yu Yue (Liu Yase), who does volunteer work there; but when he tries to date her, she says she already has a serious boyfriend, a lawyer called Jeff (Zhou Junwei). When Chen Jiexu takes Xie Wanfen to the centre one day, the manager (Wu Riyan) suspects she may have early Alzheimer’s and arranges for an examination with a doctor (Che Wanwan), who confirms it. Chen Jiexu throws himself into organising Xie Wanfan’s life and brightening it up. He also tries again to make contact with his father, though the attempt ends badly. As he takes care of the increasingly forgetful Xie Wanfan, the two become close; she tells him about her past, how she used to paint film posters, and how she was once a well-known nightclub singer, under the name Chu Xiangxiang, aka Anna Chu.
A young drifter with no family and an old lady with early Alzheimer’s find comfort with each other in Happiness 幸运是我, an involving feature debut by Hong Kong writer-director Luo Yaohui 罗耀辉 [Andy Lo] that avoids all the usual disease-of-the-week cliches and is lifted several notches by a terrific lead performance from veteran actress Hui Yinghong 惠英红 [Kara Hui]. Luo has been cranking out commercial scripts for almost two decades, in all kinds of genres but mostly relationship comedies, and generally as part of a team rather than solo. He’s best known for working regularly with writer-director Ruan Shisheng 阮世生 [James Yuen] on a string of relationship comedies, the best of which include My Wife Is 18 我老婆唔够秤 (2002) and Crazy n’ the City 神经侠侣 (2005), so it’s a nice surprise to see his name as director and solo writer on what, by Hong Kong standards, qualifies as an art movie – though one that’s pleasantly free of film-school/festival-circuit affectations.
In fact, the most pretentious thing in the whole film is a brief section in B&W, as the lead character Chen Jiexu, following the death of his divorced mother in her native Guangzhou, takes the train to Hong Kong, hoping to re-contact his father. The latter, however, has moved on in his life and and shows no interest in meeting him; after being bawled out of a job in a restaurant by the ferocious boss-lady (Shao Yinyin 邵音音 [Susan Shaw], in a horrific cameo), and rowing with his girlfriend, Chen Jiexu ends up on the streets. So far, so familiar, and everything looks set for a tale of angry, “orphaned” youth in Hong Kong’s underbelly, no doubt with crime and drugs just round the corner.
But as at so many points in the film, Luo, despite coming from the mainstream, doesn’t go the road most travelled in Hong Kong cinema. (His only prior experience as a director was with a segment of the portmanteau Hardcore Comedy 重口味, 2013, produced by Ruan.) Chen Jiexu bumps into a cook at a community care centre who eventually gets him a job there; in the meantime, Chen Jiexu has persuaded an old woman he helped in the street one day to rent him her spare room. Without at any time getting preachy or politically correct – and certainly never gooey – Luo serves up a movie with a positive message: not only does Chen Jiexu get his act together in life but also he helps improve the lot of another by an act of sheer goodwill.
At other places, Happiness also defies expectations: a pretty co-worker becomes neither his girlfriend nor his salvation, and there’s no action finale in which Chen Jiexu becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld. And for a film that includes someone suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it still manages to end on a positive note, stopping short of showing the full onset of dementia. In line with its title (the Chinese one means “Fortunate Am I”), Happiness is about the act of giving and the result of it, even though it may be transient.
Luo’s script has a loose, episodic feel but, at least in the final cut by experienced editor Zhong Weizhao 钟炜钊 [Azrael Chung], builds its characters by small accretions. Only 30 minutes in does the central relationship between Chen Jiexu and the 60-year-old Xie Wanfen truly start, initially as one between a young firebrand and an older, stubborn woman but gradually morphing into one of mutual support. The two roles are beautifully crafted. In recent years, Hui, 57, has already given notice, between eccentric supporting parts, of being able to tackle more serious stuff (At the End of Daybreak 心魔, 2009; Wu Xia 武侠, 2011) but her playing of Xie Wanfen is on another level, a career best. It would have been easy to have overplayed the character’s dottiness or mood swings, but Hui calibrates the part like a master class in acting, climaxing in a jaw-dropping sequence where the years suddenly peel away. (One reason Hui took the role was because her own mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s.) With far less experience, and faced with his biggest role to date, Chen Jiale 陈家乐, 30, could easily have been overshadowed, but after an unsteady start he proves a remarkably sympathetic partner who also holds his ground on screen.
Other roles are nicely drawn, from the focused but kindly volunteer worker of Mainland actress-singer Liu Yase 刘雅瑟 (the tomboy in So Young 致我们终将逝去的青春, 2013; the dumped girlfriend in Up in the Wind 等风来, 2013; the flatmate in Rock Hero 摇滚英雄, 2015) to the jokey, womanising cook of Hong Kong actor-singer Zhang Jicong 张继聪. Aside from editor Zhong, Luo has sensibly surrounded himself with an experienced tech crew (d.p. Xie Zhongdao 谢忠道 [Kenny Tse], art director Feng Jihui 冯继辉), as well as composer du jour, US-born, now Hong Kong-based Hatano Yusuke 波多野裕介 (SoulMate 七月与安生, 2016), all of whom give the film a quality look and feel, with Hatano’s lively music keeping the film accessible.
Co-funded by Mainland sources, the film crashed and burned in China (where it opened ahead of Hong Kong), scraping just under RMB1 million – hardly a surprise in that ruthlessly commercial market.
Presented by Dadi Century (Beijing) (CN), Emperor Film Production (HK), EMP Distribution (Beijing) (CN), Magic Film Wuxi (CN). Produced by Emperor Film Production (HK).
Script: Luo Yaohui [Andy Lo]. Photography: Xie Zhongdao [Kenny Tse]. Editing: Zhong Weizhao [Azrael Chung]. Music: Hatano Yusuke. Art direction: Feng Jihui. Costumes: Chen Yunwen. Sound: Tan Derong, Nopawat Likitwong. Action: Yi Tianxiong. Visual effects: Zheng Wenzheng.
Cast: Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] (Xie Wanfen), Chen Jiale (Chen Jiexu), Liu Yase (Yu Yue), Zhang Jicong (Gan, centre’s cook), Wu Riyan (Fang Limei, centre’s manager), Wu Yekun (Fa, Chen Jiexu’s mechanic friend), Lin Zhaoxia (Suhuajie/Wu Mingzhu, female tramp), Zhou Junwei (Jeff, Yu Yue’s boyfriend), Che Wanwan (doctor), Guo Ying’er (Xin, Chen Jiexu’s girlfriend), Shao Yinyin [Susan Shaw] (restaurateuse), Qian Xiaohao (Chen Feng, Chen Jiexu’s father), Mai Jiaqi [Teresa Mak] (Chen Feng’s wife), Yu Weiguo [Daniel Yu] (smiley waiter), Zhong Huibing (shop-owner), Zhong Shuqi (Xie Wanfen’s tenant), Peng Liwei (policeman in hospital), Xu Yingyi (Fa’s girlfriend), Liang Yousheng (Uncle Cheng, crazy old man at centre), Pan Jiaqi (Chen Zijun, Chen Jiexu’s younger brother).
Premiere: USC US-China Institute: Hong Kong Film Festival, Washington, 15 Jul 2016.
Release: Hong Kong, 8 Sep 2016; China, 26 Aug 2016.