Hong Kong, 2016, colour, 2.36:1, 101 mins.
Director: Huang Jin 黄进 [Wong Chun].
Low-budget family drama is weakly developed but sustained by its two star performances.
Hong Kong, the present day. Long-distance lorry driver Huang Dahai (Zeng Zhiwei) collects his son, Huang Shidong (Yu Wenle), from a sanatorium where he’s been treated for bipolar disorder (manic depression) the past year. When Huang Dahai asks whether his son is cured, the doctor says it’s not that simple, and prescribes Huang Shidong some medicine. A widower who’s spent most of his life on the road, and was hardly around when his sons were growing up, Huang Dahai lives in a tiny room with a bunkbed in a subdivided flat. Father and son try to get on, with Huang Dahai taking time off work to spend it with Huang Shidong, who’s quiet and unresponsive. When Huang Shidong attends the wedding feast of his friend Louis (Mai Zile), he becomes angry and lectures the other guests for not listening to Louis’ heartfelt speech. Huang Shidong remembers caring for his sick, bedridden mother Lv Wanrong (Jin Yanling), who died in 2014, aged 62, and having to tolerate her violent outbursts about Huang Dahai, from whom she was then separated. When Huang Dahai has a recurrence of a foot problem, he spends more time with Huang Shidong and admits he was useless as both a husband and a father. Huang Shidong tries to get work in his old job as a financial trader but people are unwilling to hire him. Then his former girlfriend, Tan Sihui, aka Jenny (Fang Haowen), contacts him and they have dinner. Huang Shidong goes with her to a gospel meeting, where she pours out all her misfortunes since she broke up with Huang Shidong over the death of his mother, but says she now hopes they can recover their past happiness together. Shocked by her behaviour, Huang Shidong sinks back into a depression, haunted by his mother’s death. With his other son unable to leave the US, Huang Dahai also becomes depressed, and joins a discussion group.
A low-budget drama centred on a young man recovering from manic depression, Mad World 一念无明 keeps motoring along – even when the screenplay is stuck in neutral – thanks to the power of its star cast. This first feature by Hong Kong writer-director Huang Jin 黄进 [Wong Chun], following several shorts, makes smart use of limited resources and, without any large, over-reaching dramatic arc, builds a convincing portrait of several intertwined lives via the small events of everyday life and their emotional ups and downs. The packaging, too, is fine: some subtly moody widescreen work by d.p. Zhang Ying 张颖 (Trivișa 树大招风, 2016; Dealer/Healer 毒。诫, 2017), realistic interior art direction (especially of the main, cramped flat) by Zhang Zhaokang 张兆康 (Ex 前度, 2010; Unbeatable 激战, 2013), and an atmospheric chamber score by Hong Kong-based Japanese American composer Hatano Yusuke 波多野裕介 (Happiness 幸运是我, 2016; SoulMate 七月与安生, 2016). But as things wind on, there’s no escaping the fact that the script, by Huang and his regular partner Chen Chuheng 陈楚珩, hardly builds at all on its pregnant first half.
The opening 40 minutes lays out a rich menu: a financial trader who’s suffered a meltdown and spent a year in a sanatorium with manic depression (aka bipolar disorder), a lorry-driver father who takes him into his tiny, one-room flat and tries to make amends for a lifetime of absence, and both their memories of the nutty, bed-ridden old woman who was their mother/wife. Add to all that, there’s the son’s ex-girlfriend who’s now got religion, an absent brother in the US who doesn’t want to know about family problems, and former workmates who avoid offering him his job back as he’s now “tainted” with mental illness.
As in many indie films from the territory, this is a Hong Kong that’s all help groups, bureaucratic authorities, people worried about money, disintegrating families and crowded living conditions – from which the only escape seems to be suicide. Huang and Chen don’t let the script plumb the depths of despair, and leaven it with a lighter mid-section, but they also don’t offer any solutions or inspirational drama. Structurally, Mad World feels like an extended 50-minute short rather than a proper feature film, especially in its reluctance to develop a larger or more dramatic narrative.
As the guilt-loaded father, the ubiquitous Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang], who was the first to commit to the project, is fine, if somewhat predictable in his technique and expressions. Much subtler is Yu Wenle 余文乐 [Shawn Yue] as the depressive son, though he’s given little dialogue to work with and, after being set up as the central character, later becomes more like a mute observer of others’ misfortunes, especially his father’s. Only in flashbacks, as the abusive, bed-ridden mother/wife, Taiwan veteran Jin Yanling 金燕玲 [Elaine Jin] makes a powerful impression in limited time, though her role is largely one-note with no backgrounding. In a serious role for a change, Hong Kong singer-actress Fang Haowen 方皓玟 is OK in a couple of emotional scenes as the son’s ex but, again, the script leaves her role in limbo.
According to Huang and Chen, the film was inspired by a newspaper story about a middle-aged man who lost his father in an accident and was then jailed for it, despite having devoted his life to caring for him. Perhaps unwisely, the final screenplay goes in a different, less ironic direction. Like the recent Weeds on Fire 点五步, the film was funded to the tune of HK$2 million by Hong Kong’s Film Development Fund. Its Chinese title, which literally means “One Idea, No Understanding”, is a Buddhist concept of ignorance, by which people keep on hurting themselves and each other because of a simple failure to understand reality.
Presented by CreateHK (HK), Film Development Fund (HK). Produced by Mad World (HK).
Script: Huang Jin, Chen Chuheng. Photography: Zhang Ying. Editing: Huang Jin. Music: Hanato Yusuke. Art direction: Zhang Zhaokang. Costume design: Luo Jiahui. Sound: Chen Zhifeng, Ye Junhao.
Cast: Yu Wenle [Shawn Yue] (Huang Shidong), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Huang Dahai), Jin Yanling [Elaine Jin] (Lv Wanrong, Huang Shidong’s mother), Fang Haowen (Tan Sihui/Jenny), Chen Xuewen (Yu Sheng, boy), Shui Jie (Yu Sheng’s mother), Mai Zile (Louis), Chen Pide (Li), Li Jiading (Tan Sihui’s father).
Premiere: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), 8 Sep 2016.
Release: Hong Kong, 30 Mar 2017.