Of fathers and sons

Updated: 2017-03-24 07:08

By Elizabeth Kerr(HK Edition)

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One of the great things about March in Hong Kong is that the film festival invariably inspires the release of the cleverest, most adventurous, local and Chinese mainland cinema of the year. Everyone's in the mood to be challenged, and so we get films like emerging director Wong Chun's Mad World and rally driver-author-megastar blogger-filmmaker Han Han's Duckweed gracing the screens. The former has considerable social ambitions, while the latter has as clear an eye into modern China as it gets.

In Mad World, an absentee father, Wong (Eric Tsang), reconnects with his son Tung (Shawn Yue) when he's released from a psychiatric hospital. Staying together for the first time in years, the duo deals with the traumatic death of Tung's mother (Elaine Jin), among other things, all within the crowded confines of a subdivided flat. That's all there is to it, but Wong's micro-budgeted debut (produced with help from the HKDC's First Film Initiative) is a sensitive, if modest, portrait of dealing with mental illness in an unsympathetic location like the SAR. Anchored by Yue's restrained performance, Mad World jettisons disingenuous lip service in favor of a carefully considered story about Fung's struggles with his emotional extremes, their impact on his life, his fraught relationship with his dad, and crushing guilt.

Wong and cinematographer Zhang Ying make the physical space part of the story by using Wong's small apartment to reflect the small minds Fung has to deal with every day. When Wong and writer Florence Chan finally get around to delving into Fung's personal demons after an ungainly series of flashbacks to set up the story, Yue and Tsang are left to their devices, and this is where director Wong could have focused most of Mad World's attention. Yue's revelatory turn as a resentful son is almost outshone by the normally comedic Tsang as a man fighting to understand and accept his son's illness. Wong could easily have dispensed with excess backstory and zeroed in on these two, which is the heart and soul of the film.

As fluffy a crowd-pleaser as Mad World is sober, Han's Duckweed (based on his own bestselling novel) tracks the efforts by race car driver Lang (Deng Chao, Mermaid) first to distance himself from his dead-beat dad Zheng (Eddie Peng) and later to earn his respect as the older man wrestles with guilt, stemming from his wife's death. But there's a twist: a train wreck transports Lang back in time to 1995 Shanghai, where he encounters Zheng as a young man and comes to learn who his father really is. He also discovers his father dating a woman who isn't his mother. Cue for sabotage and matchmaking. But rest assured: this is not Back to the Future (which Han acknowledges in the credits, along with Peter Chan's He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father) and the scifi elements are downplayed in favor of bromantic dramedy and exploration of the generation gap.

Like he did in his road trip comedy The Continent, Han toggles between drama and comedy effortlessly, and he peppers his narrative with amusing side characters, among them a gangster with Hong Kong connections who's set on taking over Zheng's karaoke bar - news to Lang -in the past. The most compelling thing about Duckweed is the re-contextualizing of Lang's childhood and the brotherly friendship he strikes up with his father. The almost picaresque, quasi coming-of-age tale has moments of inspiration, but it never comes close to being truly subversive on any level: the gangsters aren't that threatening, Zheng's criminal shenanigans are rather harmless, the romance is chaste. A bit of third act nastiness, however, comes out of nowhere and muddies the light tone.

(HK Edition 03/24/2017 page1)