Film review: Port of Call - Philip Yung’s true crime drama doubles as a mesmerising human story
Melancholy film about prostitute murder has art-house credentials
A grisly murder in April 2008 provides the background for Philip Yung Tsz-kwong’s ambitiously humanistic third feature. While the film critic-turned writer-director’s first two films, Glamorous Youth (2009) and May We Chat (2013), were both underrated portraits of alienation and loneliness, Port of Call, which charts similar predicaments, is an admirably non-mainstream – and surpassingly melancholy – effort that should prove the ticket for Yung to join the league of Hong Kong’s most distinctive filmmakers.
A slow-burning true crime story that only indulges its sensationalistic premise in brief doses, the film weaves a complex web of psychological turmoil around many of its intriguingly sketched characters, including the victim. Played by new actress Jessie Li with both emotional nuance and a candid touch of opaqueness, the high-school outcast turned prostitute Wang Jiamei isn’t so much a narrative device as she is the centre of an acutely poignant case of disaffected – and ultimately wasted – youth.
A Dongguan-raised girl who saw her parents divorce before joining her mother (Elaine Jin Yan-ling) and elder sister in Hong Kong much later, Jiamei sees her modelling dreams evaporate and begins working as a call girl until she is murdered and dismembered by a new client, Ting Tsz-chung (indie musician and theatre actor Michael Ning in a Golden Horse award-winning debut). On the case is Chong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing), a veteran cop who’s intensely curious about the quirks of human nature.
As the film leaps back and forth in time, among characters, and across a hauntingly diverse spectrum of emotions, the audience is privy to some of the innermost concerns of the characters, but largely deprived of the conventional comfort of solving a criminal case. For the mystery here is less related to the identity and method of the murderer, which are both explicit, than it is a seething sense of existential misgiving, possibly shared by Jiamei and Tsz-chung, and palpably felt by Chong.
At the risk of getting way ahead of myself, I would divulge that the film I’m most reminded of by this is A Brighter Summer Day, the 1991 masterpiece by the late, great Edward Yang De-chang – and not just because Jin plays a distressed immigrant mother in both films. As reflective and elliptical as Yang’s film, though with a tighter focus, Port of Call has also earned much of its arthouse credential from its prestigious crew, including Christopher Doyle as cinematographer and Tu Duu-chih as sound designer.
Screening concurrently in local cinemas are two different versions of the film. The more widely available 98-minute theatrical cut is edited by another Wong Kar-wai regular, William Chang Suk-ping. A 120-minute “director’s cut” overseen by Yung and Liao Ching-Song, which premiered as the closing film of this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival, will also be available in select cinemas from this weekend.
Port of Call opens on December 3