Aberdeen (Heung gong jai)

Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Ho-Cheung Pang

The past – we can forget about it and move on or we can be forever haunted by it. Either option has no definite solution as different circumstances dictate different outcomes, which is what Hong Kong’s enfant terrible director Ho-Cheung Pang explores in Aberdeen, his most mature and accessible film to date.

Summarising the plot is not easy as it covers a number of individual threads all relating to the members of one family, each one with their roots in an incident from or stemming the past. With the cast mostly in the forty and over age bracket, we can loosely categorise this as a series of “middle-aged” crises which serve as the catalyst for these painful revisits into the past to either find a resolve or shape the future for them.

The family is headed by patriarch Dong (Ng Man-tat), abandoning the family trade of fisherman to become a Taoist priest. A widower Dong is enjoying a relationship with the slightly younger nightclub owner Ta (Carrie Ng). Dong’s son Tao (Louis Koo), a successful motivational speaker, doesn’t approve of this relationship, feeling Ta is beneath his father.

Tao is married to model and actress Ceci (Gigi Leung) for whom work opportunities are drying up as she gets older, making her paranoid as a result. Together they have a daughter Chloe (Margaret Lee), nicknamed “Piggy”, who Tao fears she is not pretty despite having good looking parents, suspecting Chloe of being the child of Ceci’s former boyfriend.

Finally, tour guide Ching (Miriam Yeung) receives a returned package in the post from her dead mother, which brings back painful memories of her rocky childhood, reaffirming her long held belief that her parents hated her. Ching turns to her doctor husband Yau (Eric Tsang) who tries to help but is under external pressure from his younger lover, nurse Chow (Jackie Choi) who is expecting Yau to take her to Japan for New Year.

Pang will be known to western fans for either his bawdy comedy Men Suddenly In Black, tawdry sex comedy Vulgaria or the grisly Dream Home, making this rich and thoughtful family based drama something of a departure but a welcome one. This may be a new mature Pang but there are still some cheeky self-referential touches to show he hasn’t totally abandoned his sense of mischief.

For instance, Pang served part of his filmmaking apprenticeship under the legendary George Lucas, a tribute to whom is integrated into the script, while the Star Wars merchandise collector side of Louis Koo is a major trait of his character. We are also treated to some unique fantasy sequences to examine further the anxieties of the cast – Ching is given a ride in a tin foil taxi driven by a man with a toy head, while young Chloe watches her pet lizard Greenie stomp over a cardboard city in a cute homage to Godzilla.

Many themes are explored during this film – bullying, bigotry, sexism – all applied with a caustic tone as on overview of modern day Hong Kong while juxtaposing a respectful observation of indigenous Chinese traditions and beliefs. In the case of Ching, the idea of sending burnt offerings to her mother is a long hold tradition of showing respect to the deceased, so for the Chinese audiences it would be understandable that having her parcel returned would seem like a symbol of her mother’s alleged hatred.

Elsewhere the saga of Greenie the lizard gives Pang an opportunity to reflect on the eastern belief of reincarnation versus the western idea of heaven. When Greenie dies, Tao suggests it will go to heaven as it was originally from the west but Chloe is told by Dong that Greenie will visit her after seven days. A week later a whale is washed up on the beach and Chloe feels a familiar attachment to it.

As well as being a resolving plot point for Chloe, the beached whale serves as metaphor to put the trials and tribulations of the family into perspective for Dong to sum up the futility of their respective and collective struggles, while perhaps lamenting the changes in Hong Kong itself, which for Pang appears to be a pertinent concern.

Perhaps also addressed with a heavy hand is the plight of Ceci. Despite still being a fox who swims every day to stay in shape and look young, she is considered “over the hill” while male counterparts are pampered regardless of age. Ceci even attends a networking party in the hope of getting work only to see young starlets draping themselves over aging producers to be recognised. This naturally horrifies Ceci but it doesn’t stop her practising on hubby Tao in one of the funnier moments in the film.  

For his cast, Pang has called upon favourite collaborators Eric Tsang and Miriam Yeung, the former reminding us there is more to him than the comedy buffoon, while the latter is heart achingly glorious as the troubled Ching. Louis Koo and Gigi Leung are Pang first timers but give strong turns under his aegis, making for a believable couple. Veteran Ng Man-tat is the emotional glue of the family unit as Dong while youngster Margaret Lee as Chloe is rather fun in her role. A few other regulars show up in cameos such as Chapman To, Dada Chan and Shawn Yue.

In his conclusion, Pang seems a little resigned in suggesting that we accept our fate and don’t try to alter it. In some cases this is sagacious advice, in others it feels like a copout but a compelling argument has been laid out in the three scenarios presented here, demonstrating Pang is ready for the next phase in his career. His direction is confident for such a bold change of style and his mix of visual ideas isn’t spoiled by rash ambition.

If Aberdeen is the beginning of a new Ho-Cheung Pang then the future looks very promising indeed.