Tomorrow Is Another Day

Hong Kong (2017) Dir. Chan Tai Lee

Being on the Autism spectrum I am naturally interested in films dealing with Autism, partly out of curiosity as to how they handle it, and partly out of cynicism for the same reason. This time, we head to Hong Kong and a film from screenwriter turned director Chan Tai Lee who focuses on the parents’ of an autistic person.

The story revolves around the Wong family of Kam Fa (Teresa Mo), mother to 20-year old Hui Kwong (Ling Man-lung) and wife to Yuen Shan (Ray Lui), a driving instructor having an affair with younger student Daisy (Bonnie Xian). With Kwong being autistic and mentally handicapped he was a handful to raise, not helped by Yuen Shan’s infidelity over the years.

His latest affair is exposed when Daisy shows up at the family flat while Kam Fa is out shopping, leading to a huge row after which Yuen Shan moves out and into Daisy’s flat in an opposite apartment block. Kam Fa now has to look after Kwong alone who doesn’t understand why his father is no longer there, while Kam Fa plans her revenge against Daisy.

Chan Tai Lee has received much praise for raising awareness about Autism in Hong Kong and China through this film, although it doesn’t really discuss the subject much. Lee spent time with two autistic children to study their behaviour but his film offers no context as to why autistic behave the way they do or what they are doing.

Perhaps this won’t matter to viewers not on the spectrum or related to someone who is, and they’ll take this depiction on trust like with Rain Man 30 years ago (yes, 30 years!), but for those of us for whom this hits closer to home, the absence of an educational remit, even brief enough to help others understand ASD, is a missed opportunity.  

Granted people watch films for escapism and not to be lectured so I get why Lee’s script focuses the domestic drama of the parents struggling with an autistic person, but there is one bone of contention that needs to be raised. It isn’t until the final five minutes that we learn Kwong is also mentally handicapped – without this vital piece of information, the film hitherto portrays Kwong solely as autistic which in turns misleads us to believing his autism is like being severely retarded.

That is not say to say Kwong’s meltdowns, self harming when stressed, obsession with fish, social awkwardness and communication issues aren’t genuine autistic traits but this portrayal obscures how much of Kwong’s condition is autism related. It’s a fine line to straddle in portraying autism as it is a spectrum and whilst I don’t doubt Lee’s intentions were noble, Kwong being mentally handicapped should have been established earlier.

Sorry for the mini-rant there. Back to the film, a by-the-numbers domestic yarn of a family unit under pressure and the recriminations of selfish actions. Yuen Shan’s flings are not a new thing, but Kam Fa turns a blind eye to them because of Kwong and because he is the breadwinner of the family. Yuen Shan did spend a few years raising Kwong while Kam Fa worked but he became tired of the daily uphill battle and they swapped roles.

Quite what the younger, mini skirted, always made-up Daisy should see in Yuen Shan is not explained but then again, she is the flimsiest drawn character here. Vain, selfish, and lacking in empathy, you’d never guess she was a nurse especially when she fails to show concern over Kwong hitting himself. None of the local women likes Daisy, siding with Kam Fa in the fallout of the split and worrying she might do something silly to herself.

Instead, it is Daisy that Kam Fa might do something silly to, and sets up a plan to exact her revenge, compete with an audacious alibi inspired by an action crime film. The tone lightens for a while as Kam Fa studies Daisy’s daily routine noting when she is at home alone then dreams of stabbing her violent over and over. Yet despite being at the end of her tether, Kam Fa knows that above all, being there for Kwong is her top priority.   

Along with the shortfalls in the depiction of autism, the moral of the story is also clouded, falling somewhere between the importance of family and not giving up on someone just because they have an incurable condition, or that a mother’s bond with her children is the most powerful force on earth. Lee argues both cases efficiently enough, but Yuen Shan doesn’t come out of it particularly well in either as a man who expects to have his cake and eat it.

Teresa Mo and Ling Man-lung were both rewarded at the 2018 Hong Kong Film Awards and deservedly so. Winning Best Newcomer, Ling is extraordinary as Kwong. Quibbles about how autistic he is or isn’t aside, this is an authentic and heartbreaking essaying of a handicapped person, which Mo, winner of Best Actress, said is the reason her performance worked. Modesty aside, Mo is the true engine of the film, dramatically, comically and emotionally.

Stepping out from the writers’ room, having scripted the three Donnie Yen Ip Man films, Chan Tai Lee’s transition into the director’s chair reflects his time on film sets and the little tricks he has picked up over the years. It is a competent effort that is never short of something to catch the eye whilst Lee is to be commended on coaxing the incredible performances he does from his cast.

Personally I would have preferred to see more exploration into autism in this film, but it does go some way to highlight the struggles of the parents of an autistic person, perhaps the unsung heroes of Autism. As a straight up family drama Tomorrow Is Another Day is a well made film and a perfectly engaging way to spend 90 minutes of your time.