Hong Kong/China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 98 mins.
Director: Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung].
Oblique study of Hong Kong’s mindset is the most mature movie so far by Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung].
Hong Kong, autumn 2013. Zheng Huiqing (Yang Qianhua) is a guide at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence based in the former Liyumen [Lei Yue Mun] fort. Bored with her job, and believing she is haunted by the ghost of her domineering late mother, she is oblivious to the fact that her husband, obstetrician Qiu Jianzhang (Zeng Zhiwei), is having an affaire with his assistant Zhou Meibao (Cai Jie), who wants Qiu Jianzhang to take her to Hokkaido, Japan, over the New Year. Her younger brother Zheng Weitao (Gu Tianle), a celebrity motivational lecturer, is married to model-turned-actress Guo En’en (Liang Yongqi), who is worried she is losing her bloom and is stuck in minor modelling and acting jobs. They have an eight-year-old daughter, Zheng Keyi, nicknamed Piggy (Li Wengui), whom Zheng Weitao suspects was fathered by Guo En’en’s ex-boyfriend, as she looks nothing like her handsome parents. Confiding his doubts in his best friend (Du Wenze), Zheng Weitao surreptitiously arranges a DNA test. Zheng Huiqing and Zheng Weitao’s father, Zheng Dong (Wu Mengda), is a Daoist priest from a long line of fishermen in Xianggangzai [Aberdeen] district; a widower, he now has a mature lover in Liu Shuxia (Wu Jiali), a glamorous night-club owner whom Zheng Weitao does not approve of. When an unexploded WW2 bomb is found in Wanzai [Wan Chai] district, Zheng Huiqing and Qiu Jianzhang have to evacuate their flat and move into a hotel, and Zheng Huiqing is convinced the ghost of her mother has followed her there. Meanwhile, Guo En’en, frustrated by her latest job in a trashy vampire movie (決战夜神2), and worried by her declining looks, agrees to go to a high-paying film-industry “party”, where she meets a handsome stranger (Yu Wenle).
The meaning is all between the lines in Aberdeen 香港仔, a light comedy-drama centred on the neuroses in an extended Hong Kong family that’s satisfyingly laced with fantastical elements. The first solo-scripted movie by Peng Haoxiang 彭浩翔 [Pang Ho-cheung] since his vignettish Trivial Matters 破事儿 (2007), it confirms a new maturity in the often bumpy career of the 41-year-old maverick that was already perceptible in his last film, the Beijing-set Love in the Buff 春娇与志明 (2012). But Aberdeen is a clear step upwards, not only preserving some of his playful cheekiness (industry in-jokes, film references) but also drawing especially fine performances from his cast of regulars (Yang Qianhua 杨千嬅 [Miriam Yeung], Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang]) as well as newcomers to his stable (Liang Yongqi 梁咏琪 [Gigi Leung], Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo]).
Though their exact relationships are not immediately clear, the main characters are all introduced in a 20-minute pre-title sequence which establishes various small plot lines. Zheng Huiqing (Yang) is a bored tour guide, her younger brother Zheng Weitao (Gu) is a motivational lecturer, and their spouses are fenced in by various complications: Zheng Huiqing’s husband (Zeng) is having an affaire with a much younger woman and Zheng Weitao’s wife (Liang) is a onetime famous model who’s scared she’s losing her bloom. There’s a sense of weariness and lassitude in their lives that’s never explicitly put into words but which informs the whole film. Though Zheng Weitao lives in an up-market, antiseptic housing estate and Zheng Huiqing in a more down-market flat in crowded Wanzai [Wan Chai], the siblings’ lives are linked by a sense of dissatisfaction that none of them can put their finger on.
Instead, it manifests itself in behavioural quirks: Zheng Huiqing is convinced her mother is haunting her, Zheng Weitao becomes obsessed that his daughter is not his own, and his wife, to prove something to herself, agrees to go to a film-industry sex-party. Meanwhile, the siblings’ widowed father, who comes from a long line of fishermen in Xianggangzai [Aberdeen] district, has become a Daoist priest and taken a lover who runs a night-club. Peng’s characters spend a lot of time talking around things and never about their feelings: together they seem to represent a Hong Kong that has travelled far from its roots and now finds itself in a place with no identity and no aspirations. It’s as if the territory is stranded in time, pickled in an aspic of its own making, with the party going on in another room; China, significantly, is never mentioned, but the very absence of any mention speaks volumes.
From the cool, clinical surfaces in the lives of Zheng Weitao and his wife, to the more realistic settings in which Zheng Huiqing and her husband move, the widescreen photography by Peng regular Guan Zhiyao 关智耀 [Jason Kwan] is an equal partner with the music of Jin Peida 金培达 [Peter Kam], here pushing himself for a change, in creating the slightly unearthly feel that permeates the whole movie. There was some of the same feeling in the non-horror sections of Peng’s Dream Home 维多利亚壹号 (2010) that flirted with the theme of real estate and the socially destructive power of its over-pricing. In Aberdeen, however, fantasy sections explicitly show the territory as a kind of toytown, and in the final half-hour, with not much actual plot going on, Peng pushes the dream elements to the foreground: an unexploded WW2 bomb unearthed in Wanzai [Wan Chai] takes on a mystical power, reminding the characters of Hong Kong’s more unsettled past, while a beached whale becomes a magical figure in which the characters desperately invest their hopes and dreams.
It finally becomes clesr that Aberdeen is about accepting the cards that life has dealt you and moving on. Peng is no more specific than that, and doesn’t frame the film as any kind of apocalyptic requiem for the territory. But it does share some of the same sadness at what Hong Kong once was, and its current lack of direction, as the much darker and more overtly comedic The Midnight After 那夜凌晨，我坐上了旺角开往大埔的红VAN (2014) by Chen Guo 陈果 [Fruit Chan].
As a motivational speaker who urgently needs a dose of his own medicine, Gu gives one of his most un-wooden performances in a while. Both Yang and Zeng dial down their usual acting tics to portray a natural, touching couple who just aren’t connecting on any level, while Wu Mengda 吴孟达 [Ng Man-tat] satisfyingly anchors the film as the father who is the link to the family’s simple, fishing roots. The standout performance, however, is by Liang who, after several years in which her career seemed to be floundering, powers back with a role that not only fits her age (38) but also sees her stylishly negotiating both comedy and drama, as a model-actress who thinks she’s on the scrapheap. Poised but vulnerable, and not overdoing her character’s paranoia, Liang also looks fabulous.
The Chinese name for Aberdeen district – and the title of the film – roughly means “Little Hong Kong”, and was adopted for the whole territory during the Ming dynasty. [For Mainland release the co-production’s Chinese title was 人间•小团圆, literally “The World, A Small Reunion”.]
Presented by Film-Metropole Organisation (HK), Making Film Productions (HK), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Huayi Brothers Media (CN). Produced by Making Film Productions (HK), CKF Pictures (CN).
Script: Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung]. Photography: Guan Zhiyao [Jason Kwan]. Editing: Li Dongquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Jin Peida [Peter Kam]. Production design: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Art direction: Li Guolin. Costume design: Zhong Chuting. Sound: Du Duzhi. Visual effects: Huang Zhiheng. Green Dragon: Bobby 17A Production. Whale: Qfx Workshop.
Cast: Gu Tianle [Louis Koo] (Zheng Weitao), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Qiu Jianzhang), Yang Qianhua [Miriam Yeung] (Zheng Huiqing), Liang Yongqi [Gigi Leung] (Guo En’en/Cici), Wu Mengda [Ng Man-tat] (Zheng Dong), Wu Jiali [Carrie Ng] (Liu Shuxia/Ta, Zheng Dong’s lover), Yu Wenle [Shawn Yue] (Dan, man at party), Du Wenze [Chapman To] (toyshop owner), Chen Jing (Xiaoba/Van, model), Zheng Xiyi (Nicole, Guo En’en’s friend), Cai Jie (Zhou Meibao, nurse), Li Wengui (Zheng Keyi/Chloe/Piggy), Chen Huihong (producer), Chen Weiyang (producer’s boss), Peng Haoxiang [Pang Ho-cheung] (Greenie, dream chameleon), Zeng Guoxiang [Derek Tsang] (vampire-film director), Lin Zhaoxia (Zhuang Yongshi, woman in coffee shop).
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Opening Films), 24 Mar 2014.
Release: Hong Kong, 8 May 2014; China, 8 May 2014.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 30 Sep 2014.)