Friday, April 18, 2014

Pang Ho Cheung's Aberdeen

Consistently one of Hong Kong's most interesting and diverse directors, Pang Ho Cheung attempts to show a different, more mature side to his work by capturing the soul of Hong Kong in Aberdeen, an ensemble piece based around the Cheng family (featuring amongst others Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Gigi Leung and Eric Tsang) which opened this year's 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

(Blurb taken from the 38th HKIFF programme) The sleepy fishing village of Aberdeen was where the British landed to take Hong Kong, hence it's Chinese name "Little Hong Kong". Likewise, the Cheng family embodies a microcosm of our city, with its contradictions between modernity and traditions, family and individuality. Aberdeen is at once intimate and sprawling, revealing uniquely troubled characters, from the eldest, the Taoist priest patriarch Dong (Ng Man Tat), to the youngest, the bullied elementary schooler Chloe (Lee Man Kwai). Pang mixes his signature humour with the fantastical, incorporating dreams, the supernatural and other surprises to distinguish this star-studded film from ordinary family drama.

Pang's Aberdeen has much to recommend it, yet somehow never quite feels like the finished article. It has a vibe of the director attempting to address some of the issues critics have with his work, particularly regarding the maturity of his filmmaking. However, (thankfully) he couldn't quite keep his mischievous instincts from occasionally bursting out, making his efforts to appease only partially successful. My issues with the film revolve around the film's structure, which has the distinct feel of a scattershot of random ideas thrown together and then pushed, pulled and moulded until they resembled something approaching a screenplay. This leaves elements of the individual stories having an unresolved feel and the film overall having loose ends. Knowing Pang's work, this could be entirely intentional, but to me, it left the drama feeling a little on the light side and lacking the complexity and depth I think Pang was aiming for.

Before this review begins to sound too negative, as I said, Aberdeen has much to recommend it and the more I've thought about it the better the film has become. The film's main asset is the lightness of touch with which Pang guides it. Considering the vanities and attitudes of the characters, Pang and his actors make them, if not fully rounded, then at least sympathetic and likeable. Louis Koo's Tao highlights this balance particularly well, a potentially hideous character who believes his already bullied daughter cannot be his own as she is so ugly, could have been a disaster, but in Koo's hands he just about gets away with it. A number of previous Pang collaborators make fun cameo appearances, including an amusing as always Chapman To. Pang's visual flair is also spotlighted in the film, with the place Chloe escapes to in her mind being a superbly rendered model of Hong Kong, which looks fantastic on screen. In addition, Peter Kam's excellent score adds texture and highlights to Pang's visuals.

Pang's film could prove to be a tough sell to audiences, neither consistently funny enough to be an out and out comedy, nor dramatic enough to be a full on drama, Aberdeen occupies the middle ground between easily categorised genres. As ever the director delights in subverting expectations and because of this, while I don't think the movie is entirely successful, it's never less than interesting and more importantly always entertaining. Aberdeen draws strength from and delights in being, a Hong Kong film for and about Hong Kong people, and in an age where the majority of Hong Kong movies have more than one eye on the mainland market, it's easy to overlook the film's minor flaws and celebrate it's love for the fragrant harbour.

Aberdeen is released in Hong Kong on 08.05.2014.


YTSL said...

It's interesting that you noted and mentioned the film's lightness of touch. I think, because it's so much more understated than Pang Ho Cheung's comedies, its serious components made more of an impact on me.

A hero never dies said...


Yes, it wouldn't have worked anywhere near as well as it does without the deftness. After the film we talked about the possible negative effects on Lee Man Kwai regarding how her looks are talked about during the film . Maybe Hong Kongers just have thicker skin but in this crazy PC world we live in it really stood out.

mr c said...

Looking forward to catching up with this one this summer as I wake up from a self imposed coma.

Aberdeen sounds so unlike a Pan Ho Cheung film. It certainly has a few lookers in the film to look forward to.

A hero never dies said...

Glad you're back Mr C. I'll be interested to hear what you think when you see it.

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