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Art house: The Happenings is a raw look at 1970s Hong Kong

Paul Fonoroff

 

A group of aimless youth on what proves to be the most pivotal night of their lives is showcased in The Happenings (1980), a drama that encapsulates the "New Wave" that swept Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early '80s and injected vitality into the local movie scene.

Director Yim Ho - like fellow Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers Tsui Hark, Ann Hui On-wah and Allen Fong Yuk-ping - had recently returned to Hong Kong from overseas studies (in Yim's case, the London Film School) and had an apprenticeship in television, before making the transition to movies.

Yim's cosmopolitan nature is reflected in The Happenings, a work of cinema that is paradoxically both fresh and derivative.

Within the context of Cantonese pictures, the rawness of the technique and the relative lack of didacticism was a radical departure from the traditional Hong Kong studio product.

Yet when compared to countercultural cinema in the US and Europe during the preceding decade, the misadventures of The Happenings' group of late teens and twenty-somethings often come across as half-baked and naive.

At its best, The Happenings' unapologetic depiction of its protagonists' purposelessness captures an undercurrent of Hong Kong society that is still prevalent today. The saga's half-dozen non-heroes aren't inherently evil, but get swept up in a nightmare scenario that takes on its own momentum.

The first half-hour is breezy enough, a seeming retread of Saturday Night Fever (1977), albeit set in a trendy Hong Kong disco and culminating in a cameo by then teen idol Danny Chan Pak-keung.

This sequence is a veritable time capsule, and it's invested with added poignancy in the light of Chan's real-life fate. After such a playful opening, matters become violent following the theft of a vehicle, whose central importance is reflected in the Chinese title, which translates as "Night Car".

Yim emphasises the accelerating darkness of mood with the narrative's twilight setting, cinematographer Cheung Yiu-cho's hand-held camera, the escalating frenzy of the cutting by editor Peter Cheung Yiu-chung, and a percussive score.

These elements come together audaciously in the petrol station sequence, an intrepid combination of suspense, brutality and laughs that turns out to be the defining moment for The Happenings' dramatis personae.

Throughout the borderline chaos, Yim never loses sight of the tale's underlying structure. He manages to provide the souls at its centre with distinct identities.

That the movie remains so watchable three decades later is due in large part to Yim's bravery and a willingness to take the kinds of chances, and make the kinds of artistic choices, that a more established filmmaker might have decided to avoid.

Although the finished product is certainly uneven, The Happenings exhibits a compelling degree of exhilaration and unbridled energy that, for better or worse, would be all but absent from Yim's future features, including his masterpiece, Homecoming (1984).

48hours@scmp.com

 

The Happenings, May 31, 7.30pm, Hong Kong Film Archive. Part of The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest programme

 

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