Film appreciation: Lawrence Lau's Queen of Temple Street (1990)
It is rare for an old film to seem like a recently made work set in a past era, but such is the case with Queen of Temple Street.
The dated hairstyles and gigantic cellphones mark it as 1990, but the milieu and relationships are so sharply etched that there is a timeless quality to what is possibly Hong Kong's saltiest mother-daughter tale.
The pungency comes from the prostitutes who ply their trade in the small brothels lining the titular avenue. This is the world presided over by Hua (Sylvia Chang Ai-chia), the empress of a small domain just one flight up.
The crux of Chan Man-keung's award-winning script is the contentious bond between Hua and estranged daughter Yan (Rain Lau Yuk-tsui), a teen drop-out defiantly following in her mum's footsteps. The narrative's psychological depth is enhanced by subtle directorial touches like the utilisation of the columns outside the nearby Yau Ma Tei Police Station as a framing device to isolate Hua from her antagonistic offspring.
In the skilled hands of director Lawrence Lau Kwok-cheung (aka Lawrence Ah Mon), ingredients suggestive of a sentimental exploitation flick have instead been transformed into a perceptive exploration of the meaning of family.
Hua's children and her "girls" both constitute families of sorts, the latter not merely financial instruments but friends whose personal affairs often require more attention than the madam gives her own flesh and blood.
The picture presented is as realistic and unglamorous as any celluloid portrayal of the sex trade, filled with equal measures of humour and pathos that flow from the situations and personages. The spectre of 1997, for example, is alluded to when one of Hua's associates offhandedly explains to a disgruntled john, "All our charges have gone up since the Tiananmen massacre."
The dialogue ranks among the earthiest of Cantonese cinema, a major factor in its Category III rating despite an absence of explicit imagery; and the performances are nothing short of superb, Sylvia Chang excelling in what is easily her most illustrious turn and a brilliant debut for Rain Lau, who won Hong Kong Film Awards for supporting actress and best newcomer.
Queen of Temple Street, June 28, 2.30pm, Hong Kong Film Archive, 50 Lei King Road, Sai Wan Ho. Part of The Art of Film Scripting programme