Last onscreen in 1995's High Risk, Jacky Cheung finally
breaks his big screen embargo with a fitting project: Ann
Hui's drama July Rhapsody. Bearing a literal Chinese
title of Man Forty, the film operates as a bit of a
companion piece to Hui's award-winning 1995 drama Summer
Snow (Chinese-titled Woman Forty). Both are films
that explore fragile family dynamics and both feature protagonists
with burgeoning mid-life crises.
Cheung is Lam, a high-school Chinese
literature who's attracted by an intelligent, precocious student
named Wu (newcomer Karena Lam). It's well-known that Wu has
a thing for Lam, but he puts off the attraction for as long
as he can. Meanwhile, his wife Ching (Anita Mui) reveals that
their old high-school literature teacher (Tou Chung-Wah) has
returned with cancer, and she wishes to take care of him.
Lam is upset, but we don't know the reason just yet. By all
appearances, his connection to his teacher was a good one.
It isn't until Ching chimes in her take on the past that the
relationships become clear - and the film really begins to
Ann Hui has always been a storyteller
first and a stylist second. That continues here, as she spends
all her time telling the story of these believably real characters
without explaining exactly what it all means. That opacity
serves the film extremely well. We know something's wrong
between Ching and Lam, and we know that Lam is slowly being
tempted by his student, but the camera remains objective and
unobtrusive. Our feelings for the characters arise from the
actors and situations, and not from a heavy-handed script
that makes sure to tell us what matters.
Screenwriter Ivy Ho previously wrote
the Comrades, Almost a Love Story, but that film seems
positively overbearing compared to the subtle, sure rhythms
of July Rhapsody. There is a bit of existentialism
that occurs, but none of it seems out of place. After all,
this is the story of a mid-life crisis, and a remarkably affecting
one too. The characters are conflicted, flawed, and even petty,
but above all they're decent and human.
Even more, the story's construction
is extremely precise. Unfolding as a story from Lam to his
son Ang (Shaun Tam), the film takes on a rather slow, placid
feel. However, as details drop and the characters slowly act,
we are drawn in more and more. By film's end, you want to
know what choices will be made, and the uncertainty with which
they're shown is affecting.
Despite the feeling that Lam may
end up being unfaithful to his wife, his character never seems
to be anything more than a good man. Jacky Cheung has chosen
a fine role to return to the big screen. A naturally likable
actor, he manages to downplay the "aw shucks" mannerisms
that have typified his screen persona for so long. Lam is
quiet and seemingly implacable, and Cheung manages to convey
the necessary emotion beneath that facade.
The other actors fare just as well.
Anita Mui's performance echoes Cheung in its subtle language,
and newcomer Karena Lam is extremely real and beguiling. As
Wu, she needs to appear innocent yet suitably mature to attract
the character of Lam, and Karena Lam does the job extremely
well. Handing her the award for Best New Artist at this year's
Hong Kong Film Awards was a welcome decision, and hopefully
she'll be able to live up to her initial promise.
However, the show is ultimately Ann
Hui's, which is funny because she doesn't really make her
presence known in any way. She respects the material and the
characters and the result may her finest film in years. I
actually haven't been too supportive of Hui in recent years.
I found Eighteen Springs affecting but placid, Summer
Snow overrated, and Ah Kam ill-advised. With July
Rhapsody and Visible Secret, she's effectively
reinvented and strengthened her directorial career. Despite
the narrative and stylistic skills of Johnnie To and Fruit
Chan, Ann Hui may actually be Hong Kong's best storyteller.