|City Without Baseball co-director Scud is back and distressingly larger than life. The former IT whiz kid turned film director mines his own personal experiences for Permanent Residence, a well-meaning but self-indulgent drama that has a hard time maintaining suspension of disbelief - which is odd, because the film is more or less a true story. Newcomer Sean Li stars as Ivan, a handsome and brilliant IT worker who contemplates life, death and love while coming to terms with his identity and sexuality. Ivan's journey likely mirrors Scud's own personal one, and supposing that the experience was worth sharing, Scud turned it into a film. We applaud his initiative.
After making his first tentative entry into the gay world, Ivan meets Windson (Osman Hung of EO2), who makes a strong impression on Ivan when he practices kickboxing in their gym steam room. Windson does a couple of flying roundhouses for no apparent reason and his towel falls off, freeing his private parts to wave around for both Ivan and the audience's viewing pleasure. Soon after, the two strike up a friendship that involves traveling to beaches in the middle of the night, stripping down to nothing, and sparring in all their naked, muscular glory. It could be every young man's dream.
The problem: Windson is straight and initially hesitant about hanging out with the admittedly gay Ivan. But Windson soon does an about face, and decides that holding hands and horsing around with Ivan are okay pastimes, as long as they don't consummate Ivan's physical desires. What follows are many scenes of the two naked men fighting, embracing, swimming and sleeping together, though their physical affection only goes so far as an interrupted kiss. Something has to give. Will it be Ivan's pent-up sexual frustration, or Windson's strict "no gay sex" policy? Or, will some sudden death or disease come along to make everything even more thoughtful and existential?
Putting the first question aside, the second event does occur, and it's just another expected plot point in this contemplative postmodern cocktail of self-examination, reflection and discovery. Permanent Residence mines very familiar themes regarding life in our modern, disconnected times, and even uses the most common narrative approach - the all-encompassing voiceover - to tell its story. Still, its approach to the gay movie is new for Hong Kong Cinema. Permanent Residence tackles sexuality in a starkly open manner and its celebration of the male form (like City Without Baseball, this film is a full frontal nudity showcase) is not for all audiences, but the emotions and situations feel real and even credible. The film does explore some well-traveled themes - death, life, sexuality, identity - but it does so in a refreshingly frank way.
But the above only lasts for about half the film. Despite some moments where the script and acting are a bit clunky, Permanent Residence manages to interest and even affect. However, at a certain point, it becomes plainly obvious that Permanent Residence isn't just based on Scud's life - it is his life, with perhaps only the names changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty, as the case may be). Ivan's childhood years and occupation as an IT worker are directly lifted from Scud's life, as is Ivan's eventual status as a film director, which the audience learns about because someone actually says to Ivan, "Hey, I saw your baseball movie."
Since Ivan's career change is never discussed in the film, that information seems extraneous and would only make sense to viewers with knowledge of who Scud is.
Another jarring moment occurs when Ivan announces his next two projects at a party, with the titles likely being the same as Scud's future works. These details demonstrate a self-indulgence that, upon further examination, edges towards narcissism. For example, in one scene Ivan's brother urges him to reproduce because, in his opinion, Ivan is so talented and should pass on his genes. There's also a moment where Ivan shares his theory that homosexuals are the next stage of human evolution and will one day become the dominant species on Earth. The theory is not stated in an entirely serious manner, but it's hard not to see the writer/director's thinking behind it.
Ultimately, Scud's self-indulgence becomes so overbearing that it overshadows the film's positives. The central relationship between Ivan and Windson is thoughtful and compelling, and Ivan is a well-drawn, if somewhat indulgent character. The actors also do a decent job; both Sean Li and Osman Hung have good physical presences, and whatever they lack in vocal delivery is compensated by their handling of the characters' emotions. The location work in China, Israel, Thailand and Australia is diverting, and the film even gets creative and cheeky with an out-of-nowhere metaphysical ending that speculates on future events. The unexpected ending entertains, but it's also more than a little odd, and serves as the self-indulgent cherry on top of this all-about-me filmmaker sundae. One almost expects the film to prognosticate a future Oscar win for the talented and brilliant filmmaker Ivan. Given everything else that goes on in Permanent Residence, it's easy to imagine
Scud throwing that in.
It's not wrong that Scud mined his own personal experiences for Permanent Residence, but the way that he does it is so transparent that it becomes presumptuous and self-serving. It would have been more acceptable for Scud to have his 8 1/2 moment after completing more films or earning wider critical acclaim. However, right now all we've seen is one decently-received film and some questionably successful self-promotion. Granted, there are interesting and even affecting themes that Scud tackles, and his behind-the-scenes collaborators are good. But a film needs more than good partners and good ideas; it needs judicious execution and Scud drops the ball there. Permanent Residence seems to be asking the viewer to revere its creator, and it's way too early for Scud to ask that much of his audience. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2009)