Big Blue Lake
Hong Kong, 2011, colour, 16:9, 99 mins.
Director: Zeng Cuishan 曾翠珊 [Jessey Tsang].
Plot-light but involving study of a woman returning to her home village outside Hong Kong.
Haochong [Ho Chung] village, Xigong [Sai Kung] district, New Territories, Hong Kong, the present day. After 10 years abroad as a drama student and theatre actress, 30-ish Zhang Liyi (Tang Ning) returns to the village in which she grew up, though it has changed from how she remembered it. Her mother Mei (Tan Enmei) now has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, and keeps forgetting things, often wandering off on her own. Zhang Liyi does odd jobs using her acting skills in order to be with her more. On one job she bumps into an old school friend, ladies’ man Lin Jin (Zhou Junwei), who comes and stays in her absent brother’s room. He’s trying to find a girl he once knew, as well as a big lake he once took her to. He tells Zhang Liyi the girl had wanted him to run away with her, but she never showed up at the lake where they were to meet. Gradually, Zhang Liyi learns more about Lin Jin and his past and present life.
Not a lot happened in the debut feature by Hong Kong’s Zeng Cuishan [Jessey Tsang] – Lovers on the Road 恋人路上 (2008), about a young Hong Kong couple who move to Beijing – and the same can be said for her second movie, Big Blue Lake 大蓝湖. But the leap between the two is considerable: strikingly mounted and oozing a quiet assurance, Lake manages the tricky balancing act of being an indie-style movie in which mood and atmosphere dominate without falling prey to the usual cliches of indie film-making. That’s partly due to its technical finesse. The photography by Qiu Zhongye 邱忠业 of the New Territories “village” setting of Haochong 蚝涌 [Ho Chung] has an attractive brightness and clarity, with effective use in close shots of narrow depth of field; editing by Fan Keqi 范可棋 is smooth and unforced, with no unnecessary dawdling; and the gently lyrical score by Japan’s Shigeno Masamichi 茂野雅道 (regular composer for auteur director Kawase Naomi 河濑直美) is a perfect fit. But it’s also due to the performances, especially by lead actress Tang Ning 唐宁, which draw involving characters even when there’s little plot in which to move them around.
Inspired by Zeng’s own brief absence from her native Haochong, as well as by now being in her 30s, Lake is about abstract emotions rather than concrete feelings: a growing need to rediscover one’s family, friendships and memories, as well as to draw a line under past mistakes. Zeng’s alter ego here is a theatre actress, Zhang Liyi, who returns from Europe after a decade to find some of the village’s topography changed by modernisation and, worse, her mother starting to develop Alzheimer’s. Though she still feels the pull of acting, she dissipates it in unconventional jobs in order to spend more time with her mother; and a chance meeting with an old school friend, Lin Jin, who’s also on a memory trip of his own, seems to seal her decision to stay close to home.
Zhang Liyi’s guilt over being a rebel during her youth, and her action a decade ago when she went abroad against the wishes of her father and the community, partly propels her new devotion to her family and the village. Tang’s playing (aided by brief unannounced flashbacks to her youth) gives subtle hints of the tomboy who’s now become an elegant woman, often through simple facial expressions rather than explicit dialogue. Tang is better known for her TVB career than on film, though here, as she crests 30, she’s finally landed a lead film role that signals an interesting actress.
Tang’s quietly engrossing, utterly true performance is nicely matched by Hong Kong-born, Canadian-raised singer-actor Zhou Junwei 周俊伟 [Lawrence Chou] – the real-estate agent in Merry-Go-Round 东风破 (2010) and travel writer in Ex 前度 (2010) – whose unassuming approach to a womanising role is a good fit with Tang. All that’s lacking is a bit more backgrounding of his character. Between the two, veteran Tan Enmei 覃恩美 (My Mother Is a Belly Dancer 师奶唔易做, 2006) also breathes life into a potentially one-note, cliched role as the forgetful mum.
A lot of the film is just Zhang Liyi whiling away time, doing odd performance jobs, meeting old friends, looking after her mother, and soaking up the summery village atmosphere. When, after 80 minutes, Lin Jin’s story needs to be advanced, the plot contrivance (depending on a chance discovery in a second-hand shop) is over-convenient; but, more importantly, the emotions generated between the two leads are convincingly played. Though, like several Hong Kong films nowadays, Lake is about what has been lost during the territory’s hectic past, it’s basically, like A Simple Life 桃姐 (2011), a warm, often wryly funny movie, with that special Hong Kong mixture of practicality and sentimentality. Closing footage shot at Haochong’s actual “village festival”, held every 10 years, rounds off the undramatic resolution with a life-goes-on message.
Produced by River Vision Production (HK).
Script: Lu Baobao, Zeng Cuishan [Jessey Tsang]. Photography: Qiu Zhongye. Editing: Fan Keqi. Music: Shigeno Masamichi. Art direction: Huang Liangyi, Gao Wenxin, Xiaoman. Sound: Chen Guoming, Chen Zhenbang.
Cast: Tang Ning (Zhang Liyi), Zhou Junwei [Lawrence Chou] (Lin Jin), Tan Enmei (Mei, Zhang Liyi’s mother), Zeng Ming (Zhang Liyi’s father), Yang Shangbin (Zhang Liyi’s elder brother), Ou Weilin (Lin Yongheng, high-school student), He Jiali (Lin Jin’s wife), Jiang Zuman (Xiaoman, Zhang Liyi’s friend), Chen Di (Didi), Ruan Yulan (Lan), Wu Yunlong [Philip Ng] (drama director), Li Daidi (Daidi), Wen Daqiang (Wen), Liu Shutian (Tian), Huang Bingnan (taxi driver), Peng Peilan (Zhang Liyi’s friend), Zhang Junru (salesgirl), Ou Zaiqi (Fa), Kuang Peishi (restaurant manager), Zheng Xinyan (office lady), Zhou Shanhong, Xu Yulei, Huang Zhanhao (high-school students), Wen Jiahao, Wen Jiajie (twins), Ouyang Jieci, Zhou Ruonan (Lin Jin’s girlfriends), Hong Yongcheng (waiter), Huang Junqian (barman), Gao Zhanyi (second-hand shop owner), Jiang Yongliang (van driver), Li Yijia (young Zhang Liyi), Li Xinlan (little girl), Yang Junkang (little boy), Shi Junhao, Wang Shaozhi, Cui Shaomei (parents), Gao Qianmin (Zhang Liyi’s neighbour), Xiao Weihong (teenage Lin Jin), Wang Wanchen (teenage Lin Jin’s girlfriend), Chen Fengqin (Qin/Piano), Cheng Youdi, Huang Xiuling, Zheng Wengu (old women).
Premiere: Vancouver Film Festival (Dragons and Tigers Competition), 4 Oct 2011.
Release: Hong Kong, 17 Nov 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 21 May 2012.)