Chinese language cinema

Film appreciation: Allen Fong's subtle masterpiece Ah Ying is one for the ages

The neo-realistic 1983 tale of friendship between an aspiring filmmaker and a budding actress was one of the most emotionally subtle products of the waning years of Hong Kong's cinematic New Wave

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 9:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 10:12am

Extremely personal without being autobiographical, Ah Ying (1983) is a defiantly uncommercial drama, which miraculously made it to the big screen during the waning years of Hong Kong's cinematic New Wave.

In relating the neo-realistic tale of friendship between an aspiring filmmaker and a budding actress, director Allen Fong Yuk-ping refused to succumb to the narrative's potential for glossy romance. The end result was one of the era's most understated and emotionally subtle masterpieces — it also picked up Hong Kong Film Awards for best picture, director and editing.

The title character is no starry-eyed lass but a fishmonger who toils in her parents' market stall. Neither drudge nor angel, Ah Ying is a flesh-and-blood human being modelled on the performer impersonating her, Hui So-ying.

The male lead is also fashioned after a real individual, but with a twist. The role of Cheung Chung-pak (Peter Wang Zhengfang, who co-wrote the script with assistant director Sze Yeung-ping) was based on Fong's friend Koh Wu, an acting teacher and would-be auteur who had died the previous year. The scenario is thus unusual in amalgamating two "real" personages and taking their relationship on a fictional course that nonetheless comes across as genuine.

The chief locales make for a non-simplistic view of Hong Kong, with Ah Ying's gritty milieu contrasting with the supposedly rarified air of the performing arts. Not that the movie presents a stereotypically glam world of footlights and cameras, as it also features the considerably more humble authenticity of Portland Street's Film Culture Centre, where Ah Ying cleans toilets in exchange for free lessons.

George Chan Lok-yee's cinematography captures a tangible sense of the city, often providing viewers with a fly-on-the-wall perspective of Ah Ying's life. There is a vivid palpability to her cramped living quarters, the denizens of which are played by the actress's own family. Of the exterior scenes, most remarkable is a sequence involving Cheung's stalled Volkswagen on the Tsing Fung Street Flyover.

The film's agelessness is affirmed by the continued veracity of Fong's 1983 statement: "The better I got to know Ah Ying, the more it struck me that her life reflected a great deal of contemporary Hong Kong: its quality, its tensions and its contradictions."

Ah Ying, July 12, 2pm, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei; July 26, 4pm, Cine-Art House, Ngau Tau Kok. Part of 100 Must See Hong Kong Movies programme