|Ann Hui returns to Tin Shui Wai with Night and Fog, and what a difference a year makes. While her award-winning The Way We Are celebrated the border town’s humble history, local flavor and hard-working residents, Night and Fog references the town’s media-anointed reputation as Hong Kong’s “City of Sadness”, presenting a harrowing and gripping tale of a Tin Shui Wai couple whose escalating estrangement turns into tragedy. Instead of character actors and unknowns, Hui goes for real stars this time, casting Zhang Jingchu and Simon Yam. What hasn't changed is the fact that Hui remains among Hong Kong's best local filmmakers.
Despite the lurid subject matter and controversial setting, Night and Fog isn’t unchecked sensationalism; the film is based on an actual 2004 Tin Shui Wai murder-suicide involving a mainland immigrant, her Hong Kong husband, and their two children. The filmmakers researched the actual event, assembling the facts that they could while extrapolating on the few that they couldn’t to create a compelling tale that’s only a few steps short of a feature-length reenactment. Some choices made don’t always convince, as they seem to convey too much of the filmmakers' thematic intent. However, the story is certainly affecting and Hui's storytelling is measured, thoughtful and genuinely powerful.
Zhang Jingchu, so good in Protégé and Beast Stalker, stars as Wong Hiu-Ling, a mainland immigrant married to older Hong Kong husband Lee Sum (Simon Yam). The couple lives in a highrise Tin Shui Wai housing estate along with their twin daughters (Audrey and Ariel Chan). Sum lives off his pension, while Ling works to make her own living. However, Sum isn’t happy about that. He’s also not happy that Ling is willful, and his physical affection for his wife frequently blurs the line between passionate and abusive.
After one particularly harrowing exchange, Ling flees Sum for the safety of a woman’s shelter, where she strikes up minor friendships and engages in some personal healing. However, even after stints in the shelter and back in China with her family, a resolution is not forthcoming for the couple. Ling does meet with Sum once more in order to settle their affairs, but the end for this family is not a happy one. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the couple's past reveal the genesis of the tragedy, as well as Lee Sum's pronounced and unsurprising capacity for darkness.
There is little mystery in Night and Fog, as the results of the real-life incident are plainly known. What is lesser known is how loyal Ann Hui’s film is to the actual events. The filmmakers’ research and planning involved multiple interviews with survivors of the real-life tragedy, and some of the film’s locations are the actual ones – with the family’s Tin Shui Wai estate and flat being one notable exception. Night and Fog has earned its claims to realism, making this tragic tale of lower class lives into a compelling, even vibrant slice of not-so-happy life. Shot gorgeously on HD video by Charlie Lam (who also served as cinematographer on The Way We Are), the film seems real and immediate, with only a few scenes taking on the appearance of a heightened rather than authentic reality.
Where the film does trip up is with its obvious thematic leanings. Night and Fog may be a true event, but the filmmakers sometimes lay it on a bit thick. The parade of male power figures that refuse to help Ling is a glaring thematic detail, and Simon Yam’s character sometimes crosses the line into demonized caricature. Lee Sum is an astounding heel, whose charm and innate humanity are far eclipsed by his self-serving boorishness and volatile, fragile ego. There’s a real, pathetic human being underneath, but Lee Sum is rendered rather broadly. This is most evident in one particular moment, where Simon Yam literally leers at the audience, and his bursts of violence and unchecked lust sometimes seem too much.
However, human monsters like Lee Sum undeniably exist, and Yam is genuinely frightening in the role. The rest of the cast handles their roles exceptionally well; Zhang Jingchu continues to prove that she’s among China’s most daring and skilled young actresses, and the supporting work from Jacqueline Law and Amy Chum is strong. The film opens after the tragic event, with the many details of the family only gleamed through staged interview segments and key flashbacks featuring the supporting characters. The supporting performances really shine here, adding depth and even suspense to the story.
Aside from its local focus and strong performances, the key strength in Night and Fog is simply Ann Hui’s assured direction. Hui gives each character and situation the proper focus, and the emotions welling up are genuinely compelling. As one-sided as the portrait of this family sometimes seems, there is recognizable humanity in the dark dysfunction they exhibit, and the tension created by Hui never wavers. Everybody knows the ending to Night and Fog, but Hui manages to make the journey suspenseful and even powerful. Likely to be among the year's best films. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2009)