Review: Red Chamber in the Concrete Forest
In Blast (2013), their last Hong Kong Arts Festival outing, playwright Wang Haoran and director Chan Chu-hei explored how rapid urbanisation on the mainland had intensified and exasperated cross-border conflicts in this city. They return this year with another original festival commission, Red Chamber in the Concrete Forest, that looks at how a local man's life has been affected by his sexual relationships with two mainland women.
The play gets off to a slow, and somewhat discouraging, start with an awkward scene in which the unemployed Man (Tang Sai-cheong) waits for Girl (Sheena Cheung), whom he met over the internet while playing, oddly, Coldplay's Yellow on his stereo. When Girl arrives, all she wants is to have sex and all Man wants is to talk.
As if that is not unconvincing enough, Man, in his late 30s and on social benefits, persuades Girl to spend the night listening to him recall his past. And recall he does. We first go back a decade, when Man, then an insurance salesman and tutor, falls in love with a mainland prostitute called Qin Yun (Zhao Yiyi).
That relationship didn't last. Then we go back another 10 years, to Man's teen years, and see him lose his virginity to a mainland prostitute (Sarah Lao, left, with Anson Chan), who eventually breaks his heart, too.
So, what is the story here? A Hong Kong man's emotional life gets screwed twice over by mainland prostitutes and is now stuck in his past? Perhaps this is an allegory: how this city is repeatedly being let down by their own expectations of what the mainland promises? Or maybe the play just needs more time to develop. Despite the weak script (especially when compared with Blast), Zhao and Lao gave solid performances as the two drifters and prostitutes, while Tang, Jim Hui and Anson Chan - who play Man at different points of his life - were convincingly gullible. The theme of time and the idealism of youth are also handled well.