So I went to the screening (what premiere starts at 10 p.m.?) of Ann Hui’s 天水圍的夜與霧 (Night and Fog in Tin Shui Wai) tonight, going in review-blind with the faith of a fan of what she did for the township in 天水圍的日輿夜 (Day and Night in Tin Shui Wai).
The director and actors said a few words which I’ve forgotten, the gist of which seemed to be “you’re in for a rough ride — ‘tragedy, tragedy, tragedy’ — but oh well”. Wish they had more to say about what the movie is trying to do, but maybe I have no right to expect that from actors).
Let me warn you first that this is an incendiary film — maybe it’s what was intended, but I am incensed (though probably will flame out soon) not by the very real issues of failed governance and people raised in the film, but by the choices made by the filmmakers. Spoilers lie ahead.
After defying tabloid tarrings of Tin Shui Wai as hell on earth in the previous film and portraying it as a place where the warmth of humanity persists amidst its daily struggles and pain, a leap of bad faith has been taken back into despair’s embrace, within which cynical stereotypes and plain bad luck combust into a family’s apocalypse.
Yes, terrible murder-suicides have taken place in Tin Shui Wai. This chain of events is not uncommon — middle-aged man takes sweet-faced, dulcet-toned young wife, but brutal anger, fear of emasculation and poverty-induced paranoia consume him — he’s chewed, spent and spat out by everything he’s ever known, and he’s not going to take it anymore. But this is not Othello we’re speaking of.
I should have walked out at the rape scene. But it was not because of that, sick as it was, that I felt my trust in discernment violated. Cleverness, such as in how the real reasons for the couple’s “love” are embedded in a layered, cross-cut narrative, does not make up for forcing an audience to sit through an orgy of violence — in slow motion.
As I’ve learnt from Joss Whedon, there are stories that we want to hear — romantic, comedic, dramatic, ick ick ick — and there are stories that we need to hear — the bardic, the barbaric, the yardstick of the cost of modern living. But how can I in good conscience recommend this particular story with all that awaiting? With its tar brushing of social workers, when I personally know one who has chosen to cast his lot to Tin Shui Wai?
Hui wanted the audience to know that the movie’s title is meant to echo the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, but was this meant to gird our loins for the scenes ahead? Movies should stand or ultimately fall by themselves, homages be danged.
The movie simply goes too far. (Is that why some of the actors kept apologising?) So some people will watch it but are they going to want to make a difference, or put this agony behind them with haste? So you need legislators with the imagination and derring-do to create new economic centres in the New Territories and resurrect what’s out of sight and out of mind? So you need to up the numbers and training of social workers and police to address the problems with any level of maturity?
Maybe The Wire has spoilt me for life, but I feel OK demanding more from a director of Hui’s skill and perspective — here, I fear that the message has been lost in the medium, even if the medium is a triumph of realism (but, crucially, not always — not with things in slow motion).
Two things that don’t make sense — while the lead actress is easy on the eyes, and I think imbued a subtle power in her performance (at least compared to something unconvincingly OTT in the lead actor’s — but at least he’s handsome and suave in real life?), she’s clearly not genetically of the Sichuan world. But that’s just a quibble, really. My real bone to pick is why would someone as independent-minded as Lily in the women’s shelter be forced there in the first place?
And what is the message from the women’s shelter? Fortune telling isn’t shown to work there, by the way — the epileptic woman forges ahead with a plan to get her own flat, instead of waiting for springtime with her Hitler — so is it being said that your fate rests in your hands (unless you’re in fate’s hands, in which case you’re royally skewered — sorry)?
So Tin Shui Wai has been painted in blood and tabloid ink. Placed next to last year’s film, this movie just feels sensationalistic and its scant warmth can only fringe around a cold core of sadism. Or shoot past the centre in blazes of inappropriate laughter.
Maybe I’m just being grumpier than usual, but I shudder to think the impression that will be given of this time in Hong Kong’s history when Hui’s oeuvre inevitably becomes canon, and hapless students everywhere choose to be taken in by this side of truth.