“A Complicated Story” marks the debut of upcoming Hong Kong director Chau Kwoon Wai, and despite being a graduation project is a notable release, being the first film from the new Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts (HKAPA) film program, produced by Johnnie To and William Kong of Milkyway and Edko Films. Adapted from a novel by popular author Yi Shu, the film is a drama dealing with the currently hot topic of surrogate motherhood, which as the title suggests weaves an intricate web of secrets, lies and shifting relationships.
At the heart of the film is actress Zhu Zhi Ying (“Lust, Caution”), playing a university student called Liu Yazi who agrees to become a surrogate mother for a rich couple in order to raise the money for an operation for her seriously ill brother. Despite surrogacy being a legal and moral grey area, Liu Yazi agrees to the deal, brokered by lawyer Kammy (Stephanie Che “Bends”), and is impregnated and spirited away to a luxury house where she is to remain in seclusion until she gives birth. Four months in, the couple apparently decide to cancel the contract, and rather than be forced into an abortion, Liu Yazi flees the city and hides out on an island, planning to keep the baby and raise it herself. However, the biological father of the child, famous tycoon Yuk Cheung (Jacky Cheung) tracks her down, begging her to reconsider, much to the anger of his actress wife Tracy (Cherrie Ying).
To its credit, “A Complicated Story” does live up to its title, and though Chau Kwoon Wai employs a fairly simple structure, there’s a great deal of drama packed into its efficiently paced narrative. While the formal construction of the story does, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflect Chau’s rookie director status, the film in many other areas is very accomplished and handled with assurance and maturity – to what extent this is down to producers Johnnie To and William Kong is debatable, though the results certainly suggest there’s a genuine talent at work behind the camera. The possibility of external influences might also explain some of the film’s odd later shifts in tone, moving as it does from grounded drama through to triad attacks and leftfield revelations during a less coherent, though entertaining final act. Chau does walk a fine line between art house and more typical melodrama throughout, and this helps give the film its own sense of identity and allows it to shake off the shackles of a fairly familiar sounding soap opera style plot, being very much an indie affair.
On more basic terms, the story is a decent one, and Chau manages to make Liu Yazi’s tale moderately engaging – although the film’s chapters ostensibly also follow Yuk Cheung and Kammy, she remains very much at the centre of everything. Pleasingly, the script largely avoids the melodrama and tears that might have been expected from the premise, Chau instead focusing on the legalities and moral issues at the heart of the surrogacy affair. If anything the film is strangely unromantic, with most of its relationships being driven by practicalities, and Liu Yazi’s suitors never really having obvious reasons for pursuing her so ardently. There’s a definite ambiguity here, Chau never providing easy answers, and the film and its outcome can be read in a variety of ways, from a kind of neo-feminism through to a scathing commentary on emptiness and angst in modern Hong Kong.
As well as big name producers, Chau also benefits from having managed to recruit a great cast, all of whom do their part in lifting the material several notches. Zhu Zhi Ying is fine in the lead, if somewhat lacking in the sense of determination or individuality that would have made Liu Yazi truly compelling, though the supporting players are all excellent, in particular Stephanie Che, whose Kammy ends up being arguably the strongest and most interesting character in the film. Jacky Cheung is as enjoyable to watch as ever, and the film is boosted by small, though valuable contributions from other established talents and veterans like Cherrie Ying and Deannie Yip (“A Simple Life”).
Though not outstanding, “A Complicated Story” certainly has its merits, its interesting story, occasionally clever script, and fine cast all making it a solid HK indie and a worthwhile watch. Whatever the input of Johnnie To and William Kong might have been, as a graduation project it’s undeniably impressive and professional, and bodes well for the future career of Chau Kwoon Wai.
Kiwi Chow (director) / Kiwi Chow, Kei Shu (screenplay)
CAST: Jacky Cheung … Yuk Cheong
Chih-ying Chu … Liu Yazi
Stephanie Che … Kammy Au