J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, October 04, 2013

SFFS Hong Kong Cinema ’13: A Complicated Story

It was supposed to be a simple temp job. A mainland university student in dire need of money agrees to be surrogate for an anonymous couple of considerable wealth.  However, when Liu Yazi’s Hong Kong employers mysteriously cancel the contract, her maternal instincts kick in with full force. She might be a country naïf, but Liu will not be easily intimidated by wealth and privilege throughout Kiwi Chow’s A Complicated Story (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema film series.

For Liu, carrying the mystery couple’s child is about the only way she can pay for her older brother’s operation. She will temporarily defer her education, as she lives in luxurious isolation. Liu sees almost nobody except the couple’s doctor, her personal assistant, and Kammy Au, the lawyer who overseeing the entire sort of legal arrangement.  After befriending the young woman, Au is forced to break the bad news to her: the divorcing couple demands she abort her pregnancy.

Not inclined to cooperate, Liu seeks out her own medical advice, which leads to the first of several revelations.  Liu in turn will surprise her minders when she slips away, finding shelter at a combined women’s shelter-medical clinic. It turns out the father, Yuk Cheung, is not such a bad guy. Tracking down Liu, he makes it clear he intends to do the right thing.  He and she just happen to have very different ideas of what the right thing might be.  On the other hand, his ex-wife, actress Tracy T, is the sort who always makes matters more difficult.

Complicated probably sounds like sudsy soap opera fodder on paper, but its execution is admirably restrained and archly observant of HK social dynamics. It could also be the year’s most pro-life film without an overtly religious agenda, but third act developments will still limit its appeal to the Evangelical market. Regardless, in terms of emotion, it certainly lives up to its apt but nondescript title.

Helmed by first-time director Chow with nine colleagues from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ film masters program contributing as crew, Complicate was conceived as a foot-in-the-door career calling card, but it looks far more polished than most American pseudo-indies.  Obviously, executive producers Johnnie To and William Kong (producer of Hero, Fearless, and Crouching Tiger) lend it all kinds of credibility, along with marquee movie star Jackie Cheung.

No mere celebrity cameo, Cheung’s considerable screen time as Yuk is unusually disciplined in its understatement, yet deeply powerful.  Likewise, the strong but not showy Liu should be a breakout role for Zhu Zhi-ying (who was excellent in the little seen Zoom Hunting).  Still, it is Stephanie Che who ultimately defines the film with her richly complex performance as Au.

Granted, there are times when Chow’s adaptation of the Yi Shu novel (co-written with three other screenwriters) seems to be throwing out plot points just to force the drama.  Nevertheless, it is rather nuanced in its social criticism, portraying upward social mobility as well as inequality.  Featuring great turns from Che and Cheung, as well as a lovely slightly-more-than-a-cameo from the great Deannie Ip, A Complicated Story is one impressive “student film.” Recommended for those who appreciate complex relationship and social issue dramas, it screens this Sunday (10/6) at the Vogue Theatre, as part of the SFFS’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

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