Is Hong Kong at a dead end? Nihilistic films The Mobfathers, Trivisa and Robbery suggest it is
From a blatant riff on the seemingly futile pursuit of electoral reform, to a look back at the handover via the tale of three top criminals, and class warfare (literally) in a 7-Eleven, filmmakers offer a negative take on the city. Things that happen naturally come up in pop culture, one says
Pick any local film showing in Hong Kong over the next couple of weeks, and you’ll likely come across an implicitly nihilistic drama filled with jibes about the seething political, social and economic conflicts that threaten to boil over in the city. At a time when real life can be more dramatic than the movies, it is little surprise that some Hong Kong filmmakers have taken an absurdist route in their new works.
While The Mobfathers uses a triad election as a metaphor for the pursuit of universal suffrage, Trivisa portrays the fading influences of three notorious criminals on the eve of the 1997 handover. And then there is Robbery, a colourfully violent fantasy that places several irate Hongkongers in a convenience store and lets them take out their frustrations on each other. None of these stories ends on a positive note.
All three films are slickly narrated, proficiently crafted pieces of cinema that defied their sensationalist premises to be chosen for premieres at the recent Hong Kong International Film Festival.
“To say that the audiences today are more sensitive to political allegories may be something of an exaggeration, as it doesn’t take a very perceptive person to recognise some of the issues we’re facing,” says Herman Yau Lai-to, the veteran director of The Mobfathers and many other socially conscious films.
“When things happen and become hot topics, they naturally come up in pop culture,” he says of the recent wave of pessimistic Hong Kong films. “This is a time of protest, so you end up seeing more about that in the movies; there’s little for the people to smile about. I’m not saying that everyone should make films about real-life social issues, but it’s good to have the diversity.”
Yau started working on The Mobfathers in 2012, inspired by “the very triad-like tussle for power” that he observed during the chief executive election. As he sought financing over the next two years, however, the filmmaker was afforded the opportunity to incorporate other political developments into the gangster thriller.
What began in Yau’s mind as a battle between two candidates (played by Chapman To Man-chat and Gregory Wong Chung-yiu) to be chosen as the triad society’s new leader has become a blatant riff on Hong Kong’s seemingly futile push for electoral reform. As To’s character advocates a triad-wide vote, few are aware of the behind-the-scene manipulations by its reigning godfather (Anthony Wong Chau-sang), frequently in collusion with the police.
“In the language of our society, what Chapman To’s character fights for in the movie is not real universal suffrage, but only ‘pocket it first’,” quips the director, referring tohow his protagonists are pre-selected by a small nominating committee of senior gangsters.
Yau believes it’s important for filmmakers to respond to the times. “Frankly speaking, The Mobfathers is marketed as entertainment. But it may very well remind the audiences of the era we live in and the things that happened here in the past few years. As Hong Kong is my home, some of the subject matter is impossible to avoid.”
If Yau is open about his film’s underlying political messages, the same cannot be said of the three new directors of Trivisa, a predominantly Hong Kongproduction that’s clinging to faint hopes of a Chinese release. Ostensibly a fictionalised account of three real-life criminals (armed robbers Yip Kai-foon and Kwai Ping-hung, and kidnapper Cheung Tsz-keung), the film is bookended with footage of the 1997 handover and vividly points to Hong Kong’s waning glory after its change of sovereignty.
Trivisa revolves around rumours that three notorious criminals are looking to collaborate on a sensational job before the handover. Producer Johnnie To Kei-fung then tasked the young directors with figuring out how those false reports affect the protagonists, played by Gordon Lam Ka-tung, Richie Jen Hsien-chi and Jordan Chan Siu-chun.
“Our focus is on that era, not just the handover,” clarifies Vicky Wong Wai-kit, who directed the film alongside Jevons Au Man-kit and Frank Hui Hok-man. “For the robbers in the film, the sovereignty change was not easy to cope with; 1997 was like a deadline to them. Mr To recruited us to make this film because he wanted to see the ’90s through our younger eyes.”
Since its premiere at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, Trivisa has been described by some local critics as a reflection on the impasse in Hong Kong since the 2014 “umbrella movement” street protests, but the filmmakers deny any such intent. “We began writing for this project in 2011, and the script was finished in mid-2014, before the umbrella movement even happened,” says Hui.
“Mr To did tell us that we shouldn’t have any reservations when we write the story. We could say whatever we want in the film. If we cannot pass the Chinese censors to show the film in China, then so be it. We haven’t made any concession when it comes to the story.”
Au is perhaps the most high-profile of the three directors, thanks to his directing credit for the “Dialect” segment of the omnibus film Ten Years . Although his contributions to the two movies, taken together, may suggest a dramatic shift in dynamics between Hong Kong and China, Au is reluctant to elaborate on the subject. “Audiences can make up their minds; it’s not necessary for me to spell it out so clearly,” he chuckles.
“When I worked on this project – or others, for that matter – I didn’t think about what might happen afterwards,” says Au of his socially conscious stories. “We also need to consider whether we’re honest with ourselves and with the society’s mood. I’m not saying that we must recreate that faithfully in the movies, but we do want to stay true to some of the [public] sentiments.”
Also reacting to the times, albeit in far more extreme fashion, isRobbery, the latest feature from Fire Lee Ka-wing. Like the directors of The Mobfathers and Trivisa, the long-time playwright and stage director has also worked new political dimensions into his film as a result of Hong Kong’s rapidly evolving environment.
“The film was originally based on my first-ever play, Oldsters on Fire, which was about two elderly people robbing a convenience store,” Lee says. “But I realised the story was outdated – not in the sense that it had become old-fashioned, but rather that social problems nowadays are reaching a much wider spectrum of the population. Everyone is facing great pressure.”
The convenience store setting is taken to be a microcosm of Hong Kong, as it provides a handy converging point for the more diverse characters that Lee has since drawn. “My thoughts go to the troubled members of our society: the trashy teenagers, the elderly people, demonic cops, kong nui [materialistic, self-obsessed Hong Kong girls], rich triad bosses, and the sandwich class. What would happen if those eight or nine people explode at the same time?”
The gratuitous bloodshed in Robbery was Lee’s attempt to give his audiences an outlet for their anger through its sheer visceral impact. Lee wrote the screenplay in mid-2014 and he has been quietly astonished to see Hong Kong catch up to its propensity for violence. The director is especially shaken by the fatal stabbing of a 7-Eleven shopkeeper in Yau Ma Tei last month – an uncanny parallel to an early plot in his film.
Who would have thought that Hong Kong could change like this?” he asks rhetorically. “When I made this film, I was fantasising [about worst-case scenarios] and it’s precisely what I didn’t want to happen.”
A recurrent slogan in Robbery is “The city is f***ing stuck.” Lee believes that Hongkongers are going through the worst period in recent history due to its political stance. “We were adopted by a tycoon and had lived in a beautiful mansion for a century – and suddenly he’s gone,” he says.
“We are made to go back to live in our rural home, and our mother can’t resist giving us a dressing down over any disagreement. It feels terrible, of course, but we’re also lucky to know that the feeling will pass one day – when we accept our position and agree to suck up to the mother figure. We’ll all enjoy a better living then.”
While the filmmakers are cautiously optimistic about the future of Hong Kong, none is looking forward to a revival of the Lion Rock spirit, a so-called core value of Hong Kong that calls for differences to be set aside to overcome adversity together. It was first portrayed in the 1970s TV series Below the Lion Rock and embraced in later movies such as Echoes of the Rainbow (2010).
“I don’t believe in the Lion Rock spirit,” Lee says. “That is fake positivity. The positive trait of Hongkongers is that we know to take good care of ourselves first.”
Yau is even more dismissive of Echoes of the Rainbow’s core message. “That film was taking the new generation for fools,” he says. “What the Lion Rock spirit means today is for your boss to say, ‘Don’t talk to me about [raising] your salary and just do your job properly.’ Social conditions have improved since [the ’60s], so it’s wrong to blindly accept that as truth and ask the young people to stick to it now.
“Let’s be frank; when someone comes out to talk about the Lion Rock Spirit now, he’s inevitably trying to take you for a fool,” Yau adds.
The Mobfathers is in cinemas now. Trivisa opens on April 7. Robbery opens on April 14
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