CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA
Directed by Christopher Doyle
Hong Kong | 85 minutes | World Premiere
SUN | SEP 20 9:15 AM | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3 | SUBTITLED
Born in Australia, master filmmaker, artist and photographer, Christopher Doyle began his career as a cameraman and director of photography as an expatriate living in Hong Kong. Working primarily as a collaborator with international art film a star Wong Kar-wai, the Australian honed his craft. Doyle’s pictorial control, eye for resplendent and striking compositions, and inventive camerawork, secured his reputation as one of the top cinematographers of his generation. Since 1999 Doyle expanded out to direct films as well as maintaining a breakneck slate of shooting assignments with everyone from Zhang Yimou to M. Night Shyamalan. Doyle’s collages and photography have also seen the filmmaker expand into the fine art world.
Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterious may be the Doyle-the director’s most moving, personal and assuredly crafted work. Gorgeously and sumptuously photographed the film is structured into three parts exploring childhood, youth, and old age. This is also a “city film” structured like a network narrative. Doyle picks up the threads of various characters and then jumps around between their story threads. Cutaways amongst these plotlines are often motivated by chance encounters as they happen to meet or intersect or pass on another by across the city.
The characters are played by real people, not actors, and their stories are improvised from their own lives. In the first part we meet “Egg Tart Angel,” a cute little cream-puff cherubin of a darling who walks around the city spreading Holy Water and giving blessings to everything from flowers to animals to statues. Egg Tart Angel is always preoccupied with religions devotion. She visits Buddhist monasteries, sprinkles Holy Water on plants and people and statues alike giving them blessings. Her voice-over informs that her prayers are said for her naughty brother who is consistently tempted by the devil. At home she has a little devotional altarpiece on which sit votive objects, pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary alongside Islamic texts, colorful paintings of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh and little statues of the Buddha and Confucius. Egg Tart’s ecumenical attitude to religion is a clear mirror reflection of this multi-cultural metropolis where Asians, Indians, and even Europeans have come together to live together.
Doyle is a master at filming the city of Hong Kong and the subjects that inhabit it. Overall a muted greyish blue color to Hong Kong’s thick foggy atmosphere in which the peachy pastel of Angel’s rain jacket, the bright orange flamingos at the zoo and city’s fruit stalls visually “pop” against the dominant blue-grey.
We also meet the chubby and cute “Vodka Wong,” a bespectacled little kid with a bag of snacks always by his side. Inspired by Buddhist practice, he frees his pet turtle much to the chagrin of his mother, recently jilted for a mistress by her husband. His parents’ jet setting lifestyle often leaves “Vodka” alone with his Indonesian nanny. In one scene the kid is “arrested” by the Hong Kong police for littering. It’s a humorous scene because the little fella is scared to death, but the impetus behind it is informed by a serious issue. We may have a sense of Hong Kong as this adrenalized capitalist mega-city where an each-man-for-himself ideology rules, and where foreigners and the working class are often exploited. So taking care of the city, recycling, and not littering, stresses the importance of civic responsibility as well as a concern for the environment.
These themes are intensified in the second part of the film which deals with the occupy student movement of 2014 known – so-called the “Umbrella Movement” because of the umbrellas that were used as a defense from the police’s tear gas. Text informs: “In 2014 the young and idealistic occupied nearly every part of Hong Kong.” The occupy camp grew to over 2000 tents. Many people donated to the occupy movement. Food and electricity were given free. With astonishing optimism an organic farm was dug out from the concrete. One commentator states: “I see people as never before. Hong Kong people caring for Hong Kong people. We see a wall inspired by John Lennon and the text of Lennon’s hopeful ballad Imagine scrolls on the screen. We meet a young environmentalist who wanders the city recycling and selling wheatgrass juice, and a teenage girl who continues the tradition of feng shui as a means to continue her Chinese heritage and harmonize the city.”
We continue to follow the story of a teenager named “Beat Box” who expresses himself through hip hop songs and ballads dedicated to the girls he’s enthralled with. We see a music bar where Beat Box comes together to jam with other young musicians. The owner says it’s more a mental hospital than a café. And clearly the establishment is a place where the youth of the city can come together to freely express themselves and find an artistic outlet for their hopes, dreams and frustrations.
The film has a masterfully controlled rhythm with precise camera pans and judiciously timed cuts. Doyle employs both relatively flat as well as recessional framing staging and he is especially adept at framing characters within the city’s concrete architectural geometries.
The film’s second and third parts introduce elements of surrealism. With “Presposterous,” the third section, we follow a group of seniors who engage in a speed dating excursion and this brings together characters from the first parts of the film as well. Hong Kong Triology’s score combines subdued piano that mixes classical with jazz. Indeed the film itself is structured like a jazz improvisation in which large-scale parts provide the parameters within which a more free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness cinematic articulation can take place. Certain scenes advance the narrative but with a peculiar admixture of esoteric symbolism and strange divertissement. Midway we meet an Australian teacher, a sort of humorous stand-in for Doyle himself. He’s perpetually on the lookout for beer, as Doyle is notorious for himself. Here the cinematographer-turned-director pokes good fun at himself. And recall that Doyle played an English teacher in Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), another network narrative of intersecting characters and which informs the structure of Doyle’s film. With Hong Kong Trilogy Doyle has produced a moving and optimistic love letter to the city he so clearly adores and for which he has very high hopes indeed.