Hong Kong gets affectionate focus in Decade of Love, an omnibus film exploring the ten years post-Handover and other aspects of local life in dramatic, touching, lyrical, bizarre, funny, and sometimes egregious ways. As this is a collection of ten-minute short films, and the directors range from respected veterans to little-known indie filmmakers, the film is predictably uneven. "Mixed bag" would be an appropriate phrase for this project - but "noble and well-meaning" are words that should be invoked too. Too bad the film still isn't complete. More on that later.
Director Aubrey Lam kicks things off with "Old Peak Road", a black-and-white look at an estranged married couple (Tse Kwan-Ho and Crystal Tin), who meet once more when their flat on the Peak is sold. The meeting dredges up both happy and sad memories, leading to a minor affirmation of the way things are - and perhaps the way they'll be one day. The segment is rather prosaic, but the local details, as well as the performances from Tse Kwan-Ho and Crystal Tin, bring weight to the proceedings.
"Old Peak Road" features numerous black-and-white views of the ever-changing Hong Kong Island cityscape. "Red Eggs on the Road" explores urban change even further, telling the tale of a tourist (Glen Chin) wanderering through Wanchai in search of a friend from forty years past. The city's changes make navigation difficult, but he's helped by a taxi driver (Tony Ho), who's celebrating his newborn child by handing out red eggs. Director Chan Wing-Chiu captures Wanchai gorgeously, and pays particular attention to the parts of the district undergoing urban renewal, their historic character making way for the gleaming new skyscrapers that are coming to characterize the city.
Those same skyscrapers take part in the delightful "Paper Papa", from director Toe Yuen (the first two McDull movies). West Kowloon is the real-life backdrop for a cardboard rocketship launch carried out by two imaginative youngsters. Their flight of fancy is largely an escape from the stifling realities of low-income Hong Kong life, as one of the kids has a father (wrapped metaphorically in cardboard) who recycles to fund his alcoholism. The kids' space journey is told with humor and charming low-tech special effects, yet never seems too far removed from the segment's underlying situational reality.
Like "Paper Papa", "Open Rice" also mines social issues for minor satire. From directors Lee Kung-Lok and Szeto Kam-Yuen, "Open Rice" tells of a dysfunctional (read: perfectly average) Hong Kong family who fight and fume over money and filial duties. The actors (Richard Ng, Stephen Au, Liu Kai-Chi, Steven Cheung, Josie Ho, among others) bring life to their broad, yet recognizable characters and the technique used (the entire segment seems to take place in one seamless shot) is exemplary. For local audiences, "Open Rice" may prove the best of the bunch, as its scathing look at middle-to-lower class family politics is acute and exceptionally funny.
Upper class residents also get focus in A Decade of Love. Takkie Yeung's "The Last Bid" tells the tale of well-off Ada (model Amanda S.), who's obsessed with bidding for unique art objects and collectibles. Her shopping frenzy takes a turn when she tries to bid for a deep-in-dept former boyfriend (Carl Ng, oozing smarmy charm). Yeung's segment isn't very well acted, and fails at divulging its smartest details. Ada is attempting to reclaim numerous personal belongings lost during Hong Kong's thin economic years - a nice nod to local history - but that detail is only divulged in the film's marketing materials and not in the actual film, making Yeung's segment more annoying than it is successful.
Also treading the line between annoying and successful is Wong Ching-Po's "Qing Fang", about a pretty young guy (Jones Xu) who suffers from Memento disease, as he's unable to retain even the most recent of memories. But he does remember Qing Fang (Race Wong, looking absolutely radiant thanks to the overexposed lighting and soft focus), who he chanced into a number of times one idyllic summer on Lamma Island. The segment is shot beautifully and mines very attractive emotions, but overall it's not coherently told, and probably does less than it should. At the very least, "Qing Fang" provides the film with the closest thing it has to an indelible romantic moment, and the two young actors are photogenic.
Memory is a driving force in "Qing Fang", as well as in "Far Away Eyes", from indie director Chang Wai-Hung. The too-existential tale of a young woman (Mandy Chiang) who suffers a personal loss and then meets a secret admirer (Cheung Tak-Kwong), "Far Away Eyes" attempts meaning through drawn-out conversation, navel-gazing reflection, and the sight of two people acting in a self-aware manner that lacks any realistic credibility. "Far Away Eyes" is clinically emotional, and despite some interesting observations and ideas, simply becomes droning and interminable. Ultimately, the segment is unconvincing.
Marco Mak's "A Dream of Hope" goes the opposite route, possessing staged settings and even pantomime in place of actual props. The result is somewhat bizarre, as the proceedings feel more like a stage play than a film. Still, the segment works better than "Far Away Eyes", presenting the conundrum of whether or not a comatose person should be euthanized if they still dream while unconscious. Deep Ng is the coma patient experiencing colorful flashbacks to times of love and youth, while his mother (Louise Lee) wrestles with the attending physicians and her difficult choice. While a bit overplayed, the segment still manages some felt wisdom.
Lam Wah-Cheun's "Rock Lion Rock" takes "overplayed" to new heights. The segment tells the egregiously metaphorical tale of the Lion Rock (a famous hill in Kowloon), essayed in human form by Wong Yau-Nam. The Lion Rock decides to go on a day trip to meet The Peak, played by model Belinda Hamnett. His guide is an agoraphobic girl played with screeching spunk by Angel Ho, and her annoying/cute wiles eventually take their toll. The segment playfully explores the changing cultural geography of Hong Kong and its diverse citizenry, while also serving up laughs and weirdness that are questionably relevant. There never seems to be an obvious or telling point in "Rock Lion Rock", but the themes are interesting and the segment proves to be one of the more amusing ones.
A Decade of Love is a wonderful idea, but its promise outdoes its execution. This can partly be forgiven by the omnibus format; not a lot can be done in each ten-minute short film, so any negatives are expected and even excusable. However, the politics of the film are more problematic; a segment directed by Chung Kai-Cheong (A-1 Headline) is suspiciously missing in the film's final cut (the premiere was delayed five months from March to August), and probably was edited out to placate Chinese censors.
That creative concession ultimately hurts Decade of Love far more than it really should, because it takes the publicized goal of the film - exploring a decade of Hong Kong life post-Handover - and essentially neuters it, saying that some exploration is off limits and inappropriate. This is a contradiction in intent, and makes it nearly impossible to call the film successful. If creative reflection and thought was the goal of this cinema project, isn't censoring the content the same as shooting yourself in the foot?
It's best to put that knowledge aside when watching A Decade of Love, because otherwise the film will invoke the same frustration that comes from any film that's obviously massaged to fit the needs of Mainland censors. Also, those who are stuck on the idea of Hong Kong as a genre film factory need not apply, as the film's interest is in actual Hong Kong experience and culture and not the stereotypical perceptions that international audiences may have of the city. Decade of Love is still recommended viewing for those who have a genuine interest in Hong Kong and its unique culture. The parts are not always succesful, but the noble intentions and local details are enough to make the whole worthwhile. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival, 2008)