Happiness (Hang wan si ngo)

Hong Kong (2016) Dir. Andy Lo

You can never predict where friendships will develop but that is one of the joys of life. It has long been demonstrable that age, gender, and social status have little effect on people getting along – it is the result these bonds produce that is most important.

After the death of his mother, Chan Kai-yuk (Carlos Chan) moves to Hong Kong hoping to reconnect with his father who keeps avoiding his calls. Fuelling Kai-yuk’s anger, he ends up being fired from his job and later, breaks up with his girlfriend. With no money to pay the rent, Kai-yuk is forced out onto the streets, where he is found by Kam (Louis Cheung), chef at Beloved Community Centre.

Kai-yuk applies for a job in the centre’s kitchen but needs an address before he can be employed. Recalling his encounter with an elderly woman, Tse Yuen-fan (Kara Hui), whose tenant had just left her, Kai-yuk shows up and asks for a room. At first Yuen-fan is hesitant but eventually she lets Kai-yuk stay. Yuen-fan’s forgetfulness is diagnosed as dementia and with no-one else to help, Kai-yuk looks after Yuen-fan.

For the majority of this film the title seems bitterly ironic as Happiness is in short supply for its characters, in the case of Kai-yuk it is largely through his own doing as a stroppy, self-centred jerk. Naturally, this leads to a voyage to redemption for Kai-yuk along with a touching tale about the effects of dementia and the importance of looking after those affected by it.

Writer-director Andy Lo seems to have taken some cues from Ann Hui’s A Simple Life which shares a similar story but take its own route in defining the nature of and the circumstances surrounding the central relationship. For Kara Hui however, this was more of a personal project in the wake of her own mother suffering from dementia, which informed much of her performance here.

The major difference between Happiness and A Simple Life is the lack of an established prior relationship. In Hui’s film, the main pairing was a wealthy film producer and his faithful housekeeper; Kai-yuk and Yuen-fan were complete strangers until a coincidental meeting when the latter dropped her shopping in the street and Kai-yuk helped pick up for her, carrying it back to her apartment and scoring a free meal as reward.

In a rather unsubtle but nonetheless convenient development, there is a gap to fill in both their lives that is there for the taking – Yuen-fan has no children and Kai-yuk has no mother. We can already see where this is heading but the script takes care not to force this inevitability, instead keeps the path open through the protracted appalling attitude of Kai-yuk.

Sporting an ill-advised haircut of a blonde crown on a black base, he looks every inch the angry young man and his treatment of others enforces this. In this situation, a writer will try to frame this belligerence as a reaction to a particular incident or trauma, in this case the loss of Kai-yuk’s mother and his father’s avoidance of him. However, he is so unruly, we don’t know if his behaviour isn’t the reason his father is keeping his distance.

Even after Yuen-fan opens up her home to him Kai-yuk shows no respect to his landlady, shouting the odds over the TV shows she watches and mocking her decrepit furniture. Once he has some money in his pocket, Kai-yuk dumps the old tube TV and buys a flashy 3D flat screen TV to Yuen-fan’s horror, especially as her favourite station is now on a different channel.

Kai-yuk doesn’t question Yuen-fan inability to remember the new channel number or her forgetfulness in burning food; even after Yuen-fan gets her diagnosis, Kai-yuk is still without sympathy, begrudging having to handle her medication and general care. The life-changing perspective arrives via a near miss disaster involving Kai-yuk’s younger step-brother eventually reunites him with his estranged father (Chin Siu-ho).

It is well-know that some Asian countries, the elderly are seen as a problem put in care homes by their families or the government if they live alone. Andy Lo is heavy handed in painting Kai-yuk and others as callous in their lack of caring, the real reason it takes Kai-yuk so long to come round, whilst eschewing the usual overnight personality change. This might have been preferable to keep the audience from hating Kai-yuk, though we should applaud Lo for being bold in holding out for so long.

Romance also beckons in the form of Xiaoyue (Cya Liu), a worker at the centre from the Mainland predictably already in a relationship with a two-timing loser. There is a rather contrived twist to this to help posit Xiaoyue’s role as Kai-yuk’s tacit moral guide, adding a nice touch to the central message of caring as much as it requires a little leeway on the credibility front.

The narrative is blighted by some choppy editing, designed to save time only to lead to confusion or later exposition to clarify the developments, the meeting with the step-brother the most jarring example. Generally, the story flows nicely enough to make it easy to follow and get a grip on the main characters, with some flesh afforded the support cast too.

Give her perfect emotional attachment to the subject; it is no surprise that Kara Hui is fantastic as Yuen-fan. At 56 years-old, she is convincing as a gutsy yet fragile lady older than her real age, only sometimes exposing her comparative youth. Having retired from martial arts/action films Hui’s acting prowess is to be admired and rejoiced as this role demonstrates, working well with the younger Carlos Chan.

With Happiness, Andy Lo presents a well-meaning, often poignant look at dementia, family bonds and the dismissal of the elderly by the modern generation. Undeniably touching in the right places, it does suggest ambitions of wanting to be more of a crowd pleaser than a mordant social polemic.