Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 13, 2024 7:23 am 
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A man at forty: temptations and renewed vows

If Ann Hui is a Hong Kong contemporary of Wong Kar-wai, that could be a disappointment. Her film, July Rhapsody, doesn't sing, isn't cinematic as his are. I remember Nathan Lee writing that in Wong it's the "rapt little interludes" that really count, like "an aspirin tablet dissolving in a bottle of water" or "a woman lingering in the fluorescent shadows of a ferry terminal," even a "modest tracking shot" of drinking glasses ranged on a kitchen shelf."

Hui lacks such flourishes of pure cinema. But what is pleasing in July Rhapsody, now being redistributed in a new restoration, is the Hong Kong director's clarity and patience as a storyteller - and her respect for the audience. She brings to this midlife crisis material, which might risk seeming like soap opera, a satisfyingly intelligent, novelistic feel. This is one of the most solidly enjoyable films I've seen in a while.

Hui's style is further defined by a light touch with edits that fill in a memory quickly, as literal flash-backs, soft and subtle, like smooth Chinese handwriting and Chinese characters - which we literally often see on a blackboard, on paper, in books, and in assigned essays, for some of which prizes are given. The film's central character, Lam Yiu-kwok (Jacky Cheung, who starred in Wong's very first film, As Tears Go By) teaches Classical Chinese in an elite coed school. While he teaches the class, humorously but firmly - he's an experienced teacher and was the most brilliant of all his classes in school, one of the girls in his class, insolent but fascinated, daydreams instead of paying attention, sketching him over and over in her notebook, because she's in love with him. Her study is only him.

Everything is held together, though, by classic Chinese poetry. The most emotional scene in the whole film is one where Lam, his wife Man-ching (Anita Mui, who died a year after this film came out), and their eldest son On-yin (Shaun Tam) have all gathered to see the dying Mr. Sheng (Tuo Tsung-hua), who was Lam's and Man-ching's influential teacher, who was also a bastard and an asshole, and they knew it. Yet, Lam says to the comatose Sheng, the poems he told him to learn he still remembers, and he starts to recite one. And then his wife takes it up and continues it. And then their son finishes it. When does poetry matter like this in a movie, and draw everyone on screen together, and us with them, so powerfully?

This movie revolves around Lam. Everyone else is peripheral. But the big hassle is his girl student, the flirtatious Wu (Karena Lam), who has fallen for him. She clearly thinks that having a crush and showing it entitles her to be very familiar with her teacher, whom she now addresses as "Lam." She is coquettish and delights in teasing him. He is restrained but she keeps turning up everywhere and pulls him toward her like a magnet. She is his midlife crisis, and part of the pull is its faint echo of his wife's much greater crisis when they first knew each other, when Mr. Sheng got her pregnant. The rest is Lam's nagging sense that though he was first among the students, his classmates have gone on to become big shots and make fortunes while he remains a schoolteacher. His wealth is the beauty of living with great poetry - and classic Chinese poetry is very great indeed: read Arthur Waley's translations.

Lam's wild bartender friend Yui (Eric Kot, in a dynamic, engaging performance) says he can't see how Lam can teach the great Chinese poets, because they so much celebrate getting drunk under the moon and he hardly drinks at all. He's also a little mocked by his class, affectionately, but with the indiscipline of modern students, because his sense of what's hip is always a little out of date. He's too correct to be hip. But he can be attractive: remember, he's played by Jacky Cheung.

It's Lam's wife who has the wild story, though their stories are interwoven. It all comes out when they reveal to On-yin, the older son, that in fact Sheng was his father, who also got his own wife pregnant and then left town with her. Lam married Man-ching to save her reputation. But love happened as well, and their twenty-year marriage only needs reaffirming now, but needs it badly, and both Lam and Man-ching are distracted from that, till the end, when they do renew their vows, bringing the film to a pleasing and traditional close.

What leads Man-ching to tend to Sheng now that he's dying? It's beyond good and evil, apparently, simply an honoring of a strong tie at an important time. Or maybe, she adds, she just enjoys seeing him suffer. Before that scene of poetry recited over the dying bastard, they've told the elder boy that he's not Lam's son, told him the story. It wasn't easy to tell.

The straight arrow is of course played by Jacky Cheung, one of Hong Kong movies' biggest stars. He may be forty, there's a gray hair or two, but every hair is in place. Just compare the other teachers and the bald principal: they're bores; they're just extras. Cheung as Lam can convince us that being a straight arrow can also be very cool. He's not totally confident in the classroom; he feels the brilliant successes of his more worldly classmates as a mockery. But his passion for poetry is always there and also the cool. With the rich kid he's hired to tutor, who is very sweet and dutiful, he is gentle. The kid gets an elementary poetry lesson that may be for some of us.

Hui and her writer, Ivy Ho, are skillful at creating a lively world all around this claustrophobic bubble of past scandal and present temptation and doubt. The home scene of the two boys is lively, and their contemporaries, and the bars and night meetings and the many students and teachers' meetings: it's all there without ever seeming too familiar or getting too much in the way. This is also "July Rhapsody," so in off hours Lam wears shorts, and he looks good in them - another reassuring reminder that midlife is still the beginning of the second half.

A pleasure - and an odd moment of nostalgia to revisit a time when kids didn't all have phones in their pockets yet and a woman smart enough to know how to type Chinese doesn't yet know that you don't need film for a digital camera.

July Rhapsody 男人四十 ("Man, 40"), 103 mins., in Cantonese, debuted in Hong Kong Mar. 14, 2002, and showed in many festivals, including Hong Kong, Taipei, Asian Film Critics Association, San Francisco, Beijing, receiving many nominations and awards, several for screenplay, best actor awards for all three main actors, Anita Mui, Karena Lam, and Jacky Cheung. Screened for this review in anticipation of the Cheng Cheng Films’ theatrical release this summer, May-July 2024––July 19 at Film Forum, July 26 at LA’s Laemmle Theaters, and expanding elsewhere.


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