Made In Hong Kong (Heung Gong jai jo)
Hong Kong (1997) Dir. Fruit Chan
“There is no take two in life”
In 1997, Britain handed its sovereignty of Hong Kong over to mainland China after 156 years of British rule, which one would think, culturally at least, would be cause for celebration and a positive outlook for the future. Apparently, this wasn’t the case.
Mid-Autumn (Sam Lee) is a school dropout working occasionally as a debt collector for a minor Triad boss, with no plans in life. When not harassing debtors, Mid-Autumn is beating up school kids bullying his backwards friend Sylvester (Wenders Li) whose parents abandoned him. When visiting debtor Mrs. Lam (Carol Lam Kit-Fong), Sylvester and Mid-Autumn are taken with her daughter Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi).
An unlikely friendship blossoms, but Ping reveals she needs a kidney transplant or she’ll die. Mid-Autumn makes a promise to get Ping the money. Meanwhile, a high school girl Susan Hui (Amy Tam Ka-Chuen) commits suicide and Sylvester finds two letters by her body. The three friends decide to send the letters to their intended recipients, after receiving what they believe are visits from Susan’s spirit guiding their paths.
Writer-director Fruit Chan has said even though Made In Hong Kong was about the 1997 handover, it can be seen as a study of the hopelessness and despondency felt by the Hong Kong youth towards this uncertain future. The handover itself is never mentioned until the very last moment of the film, so anyone looking to get any insight into the public feeling towards this historical moment will be disappointed.
Quit ironically, Chan refused to accept backing from mainstream studios to make this film, the autonomy to tell the story as he wanted to being vital to him. Whilst Chan got his independence, people in Hong Kong are still fighting for theirs. Using expired film stock and inexperienced actors who were friends or friends of friends, this is as low budget as you can get, yet this earthiness gives the film its realism.
Politically, Chan steers clear of opining one way or the other how the handover will affect Hong Kong in general, instead focusing on the nihilistic existence of Mid-Autumn drifting through life without direction. Any social commentary exists in the impoverished world Mid-Autumn inhabits, living in squalor with his mother (Doris Chow Yan-Wah) since his father left and started a new family with a younger lover.
Despite working for well-off Triad Brother Wing (Sang Chan), Mid-Autumn has little to show for it; he doesn’t want to be a gangster full time as he values his independence too much and in contrast to his swagger and bravado, he isn’t really a violent person. Ping’s arrival into his life finally gives Mid-Autumn some direction and purpose, but convincing her mother he is boyfriend material is another struggle to overcome.
Susan’s suicide initially feels like a McGuffin, her supposed spiritual visits to the three principles perhaps a hokey plot point to show Chan’s quirky sense of humour. It is only when the hand over the first letter to a hunky sports teacher (which he rips up instead of reading) that they get an idea of what was plaguing Susan. The second letter is meant for her parents but that journey is a little more complex.
Briefly returning to Chan’s sense of humour, one recurring theme is Mid-Autumn’s wet dreams inspired by Susan and Ping, the joke not being his filthy mind but the fact he only has one pair of pants that he has to keep washing. Sylvester meanwhile, gets nosebleeds whenever he sees Ping, which acts as radar for her whereabouts when they go to see her. Eve with this in mind, there is a Jules et Jim type frisson between this trio as they gallivant about Hong Kong in search of Susan’s grave.
This is as spirited and buoyant as Chan gets during these scenes, the subtext being they are enjoying today but with Ping’s condition, tomorrow will be different. The overall tone is one of melancholy and quiet despair, depicting an endless cycle of debt and violence for all concerned. A tenuous thread of hope is found in Mid-Autumn’s friend Keung (Wu Wai-Chung), a former thug now reformed thanks to his social worker fiancée Miss Lee (Siu Chung), but even he is forced to get his hands dirty when needed.
However much you seek an allegorical or political subtext, Chan’s clever concealing of it beneath a seemingly typical tale of teenage disenfranchisement and angst doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So much about the story and the dialogue is very localised, meaning it will have a deeper resonance for Hong Kong audiences either of the day (which it did) or today looking back at this period. All we can do is figure out what Chan is saying with certain scenes on our own terms.
Visually, the low budget and second hand stock emits a slight grubbiness that even this new 4K restoration can’t erode, which again is integral to the film’s impact. Frequent ill-timed freeze frames are an odd affectation, as are the crazy, quick edit montages often used to fill time as much as relay the chaos of the final act. Some of these edits work narratively, such as when Mid-Autumn is to shoot someone – Chan tells two versions of this scene, one the truth, one the ambiguous fantasy, all superbly done.
Chan admits he put a lot of pressure on his non-professional cast when they didn’t give him what he wanted, but as we see, they did deliver in the end. Only Sam Lee went on to have a major career after this, the others moved on shortly afterwards, yet if their legacy is just this film, they can be very proud of their contributions to it.
Made In Hong Kong is a tragedy about lost hope that proves scarily prescient socially and politically, working as a zeitgeist piece as well as a timeless cautionary tale not to give up on the youth of the world.