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Port of Call
|     review    |     notes     |

(front) Aaron Kwok and (rear) Patrick Tam in Port of Call.


Year: 2015
Director: Philip Yung Chi-Kwong

Julia Chu


Philip Yung Chi-Kwong


Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Patrick Tam Yiu-Man, Jessie Li, Michael Ning, Jacky Cai, Maggie Siu Mei-Kei, Eddie Chan, Harriet Yeung Sze-Man, Ellen Li, Don Li Yat-Long, Ronny Yuen, Tam Ping-Man, Noel Leung Siu-Bing, Tai Bo, Chan Lai-Wun, Andrew Kwok Hon-Chu

The Skinny:

Dark crime drama that offers compelling themes and ideas, but not a focused story to back them up. However, acting is good to great, and many scenes and images are genuinely unsettling. A good if not entirely successful attempt at ambitious, relevant Hong Kong Cinema.

by Kozo:
May We Chat writer-director Philip Yung again blends social concerns with dark genre tropes in his new film Port of Call, though the results are too unwieldy to be called completely successful. Based on the real-life murder of a young woman in Hong Kong, the film begins with an introduction to Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li), who also goes by the name Kama, a China-to-Hong Kong transplant whose growing disillusionment with life in the city is cause for concern. Flash forward some time and Inspector Chong (Aaron Kwok with unflattering graying hair, rumpled clothes and ill-fitting glasses) is investigating a grisly murder. The headless and dismembered body of a young girl has been found, and yep, it’s Wang Jiamei. While Chong looks into Jiamei’s life and family, the film introduces us to Ting Tsz-Chung (stage actor Michael Ning), also known as Fat Ting, a deliveryman who shows signs of disaffection coupled with a simmering and potentially frightening anger. Ding ding! It looks like we’ve got our killer.

Without much fanfare, Ting turns himself in for the murder and the film morphs from an investigative thriller into a dark drama exploring damaged characters and their motivations. Through flashbacks and tangential details, the characters of Jiamei, Ting and Chong are elucidated, though one could legitimately question why Aaron Kwok’s Chong is given the same focus as the other two. The film certainly tries to make Chong a vital character; Chong is shown to have experiences that draw him to the investigation, like one flashback that details his first police encounter with human-inflicted horrors. But in the end, he’s mostly an audience insert – a neutral onscreen tour guide who lacks a compelling personal story. To his credit, Aaron Kwok sells his character’s decency well despite his makeup and costuming not being convincing. Even with scruffy hair and unflattering clothes, Kwok still has an unmistakably well-kept face. You’d think a detective who uses this much Biotherm wouldn’t dress like a fisherman.

Port of Call comes with a well-earned Category III rating for nudity and gore, most of it telegraphed in the script. It’s explained early on that Jiamei was dismembered and her organs flushed down the toilet – accurate to the crime that inspired the film – and later the audience gets to witness her dead body being butchered in a grisly flashback. However, these glimpses into human darkness don’t feel fully justified. The story deals primarily with urban alienation and unrealistic dreams, and a gap exists between these themes and the film’s graphic excess. As a social commentary on contemporary Hong Kong, Port of Call announces its intentions plainly but piles on extra characters and details instead of digging further beneath the surface. Besides the edgy content, the film also offers moments of minor satire, such as an inspector (Maggie Siu) who argues with her domestic helper over the phone in broken English, or the inappropriate commentary from Chong’s partner (Patrick Tam), but these diversions don’t fit the film’s largely somber tone.

The film is less successful as a whole than in parts. Some scenes possess a profound gravity, and Jiamei’s killing undeniably provokes with its gory, disturbing detail. The script is too sprawling, however, and while the climax is anticipated, it’s also somewhat redundant. The film builds to an eventual depiction of the moment of murder (not the dismemberment and disposal of Jiamei’s body – that’s shown separately), but the scene doesn’t really reveal anything that we weren’t already told in dialogue. Ultimately, Port of Call gets stuck trying to do too much. Stronger editing and sharper direction would aid the screenplay, which trends towards self-indulgence with its copious detail and themes. Philip Yung should be commended for tackling complex ideas and subject matter but he seems more concerned with reaching for meaning than telling an effective story. The film diffuses its potential for greater impact with its lackadaisical pace and surfeit of character detail, some of which doesn’t really go anywhere. Less can sometimes be more.

Port of Call does possess remarkable atmosphere; besides the slowly simmering characters, the spaces are appropriately claustrophobic, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle refrains from his famous use of color in favor of a grittier look at Hong Kong that’s still eerily beautiful. Also, the young leads are genuinely surprising. Jessie Li conveys Jiamei’s disaffection with a silent and affecting subtlety, and perfectly fits her role as a millennial with unrealistic hopes and dreams. The greater revelation is Michael Ning, a stage actor who’s making his first film appearance. Ning adds remarkable weight and inner emotion to Ting Tsz-Chung, bringing a largely untapped edge to the character that unnerves. While the film itself may not be as good as its actors, Port of Call is undeniably interesting and worthy of discussion for its content and its craft. With time and further development, Philip Yung will hopefully rise to direct films that match his provocative and ambitious ideas. (Kozo, 9/2015)


• This review is based on the 120-minute director's cut of Port of Call that premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April 2015. The same cut subsequently played at the Udine Far East Film Festival and New York Asian Film Festival. However, the film's Hong Kong theatrical release, which premiered in cinemas in December 2015, was cut by approximately 20 minutes.

 Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen