The Hong Kong music industry comes under the spotlight in “Diva” from hotly tipped director Heiward Mak, who received praise and attention for her earlier outings “High Noon” and “Ex”, and for co-scripting Pang Ho Cheung’s excellent “Love in a Puff”. Headlined and produced by Chapman To, taking the role of a ruthless and shifty manager, the film appropriately also stars real life Canto-pop chanteuse Joey Yung (“Crazy N’ the City”) and new pop talent Mag Lam (“Live in Flames”) as two rival songbirds trying to navigate the pitfalls of the business, a premise ripe for a scandalous exposé.
The film opens with manager Man (Chapman To) taking a young singer called J (Joey Yung) under his wing. Fast forward to the present day, and J is now one of Hong Kong’s top Canto-pop stars, her outwardly glamorous life completely controlled by the shrewd Man, who even manipulates her relationships to his benefit. Eventually the pressure and stress get to J, and she breaks down during a live show, being secretly shipped off by Man to the Mainland to recover away from the media, where she meets and falls for kindly blind masseur Hu Ming (Hu Ge, “1911”). As she fights to juggle her new love and the craziness of her career, Man takes on another younger singer called Red (Mag Lam), setting her up as the next big thing. Red quickly learns the sacrifices required to rise to the top, running into trouble with boyfriend Lok (Carlos Chan, “Split Second Murders”) and being confronted with the seedier side of the music industry.
“Diva” sees Heiward Mak going for a balance of melodrama and documentary style realism, mixing shaky camerawork and attractive visuals, and this works well, resulting in a nice looking, yet grounded film that fits its subject matter perfectly. The music industry theme is an intriguing one, with plenty of potential for controversial revelations and digs at real life figures, and Mak does go some way in achieving this, landing a fair few punches and touching on sleaze, sexual assault and all-round cynicism. However, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the film was funded by EEG (Emperor Entertainment Group), she never quite goes for the jugular, choosing mainly to focus on the toll that being a star takes on the two singers’ personal lives rather than pointing too many telling fingers. While the film is still interesting and insightful, it’s hard not to be a little frustrated that it doesn’t lift the lid quite far enough.
This combines well enough with the character drama, and though there’s nothing unpredictable or earth shattering the film does engage through its tale of two singers. Interestingly, rather than trying to whip up a bitchy rivalry between J and Red, the film instead focuses on their shared trials and tribulations, and when they do meet, it’s more of a mentor/pupil type dynamic. Whether or not this is truly believable, it does help the film to remain grounded, and to avoid the kind of hysterics and catfights expected. Mak spends a great deal of the running time following their relationships with their respective beaus, and of the two it’s Red’s pairing with Lok that’s the more effective, mainly since both J and Hu Ming are too decent and nice to really convince.
Unsurprisingly, “Diva” is very much a performance film, and one that relies largely upon the star presence of its music industry leads. While Joey Yung does a solid if unremarkable job, seeming to basically be playing herself, Mag Lam stands out with a down to earth and naturalistic turn that makes Red a far more engaging and authentic figure. The film really does belong to Chapman To however, who steals pretty much every scene with his powerful show as the slippery, though possibly decent at heart Man, earning himself a well-deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 49th Golden Horse Awards. Man’s relationship with J is at the film’s core, providing its best and most substantial moments, To again proving himself one of Hong Kong’s most talented stars.
Though ultimately a bit lacking in the kind of bite which would have made it great, “Diva” is nevertheless an entertaining and worthwhile look at the darker side of the Hong Kong entertainment industry. Likely to be enjoyable for anyone with an interest in either the leads or the subject matter in general, it’s another solid outing for Heiward Mak and another feather in Chapman To’s increasingly feathered hat.
Heiward Mak (director) / Heiward Mak (screenplay)
CAST: Joey Yung
William So Wing Hong