It’s always good to keep an eye on the progressing careers of 1980s Hong Kong New Wave directors, and so “Floating City”, the 13th outing from helmer Yim Ho is likely to be of immediate interest for fans. Having been responsible for a number of highly regarded films, in particular “Homecoming” and “Red Dust”, Yim Ho returns to the kind of personal historical and social drama he became known for with a true life tale of an ethnic minority, mixed race fisherman who rises to the top of the British East India Company in Hong Kong during the end of the colonial period. Taking on the challenging, decade spanning lead role is popular actor Aaron Kwok (“Murderer”), with support from actresses Charlie Young (who worked with Kwok on the award winning “After This Our Exile”), Annie Liu (“Exodus”), Josie Ho (“Dream Home”), and veteran Paw Hee Ching (“The Way We Are”).
After opening in the 1990s, with Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok) now the top executive of the British East India Company in Hong Kong, the film delves back in time to follow his childhood and difficult path through adulthood. A mixed race child adopted and raised by a poverty line family of Tanka boat people (referred to in the English subtitles as the ‘Egg People’), Chuen fights to receive an education rather than being pushed into the fishing trade, at every step coming up against discrimination. The film also deals in this period with questions of his parentage and his relationship with his mother (played when younger by Josie Ho and later by Paw Hee Ching), who does what she can to help him and his siblings escape their poverty, looked down upon for being Tanka boat people.
Chuen perseveres and manages to land himself an office job at the British East India Company, and though again faced with racism and bias, gradually climbs the ladder, catching the eye of the British Taipan. Though now married to fellow Tanka Tai (Charlie Yeung), he finds himself tempted when he meets the gorgeous and cosmopolitan Fion (Annie Liu), who helps train him in how to act and behave amongst the elite.
“Floating City” is an ambitious, multi-layered film, Yim Ho attempting a story which is at once personal and epic, charting both the life of Bo Wah Chuen and the modern history of Hong Kong during the final years of British colonialism. On the first score, the film does reasonably well as a piece of humanistic drama, chiefly focusing on the way in which Chuen is discriminated against, both as a Tanka and as a man of mixed race, being neither wholly Chinese or British. This leads to a lot of ‘who am I’ moments and scenes of him staring in the mirror or off into the distance, and though a bit clumsy at time, Yim manages to make his personal journey an interesting and engaging one. However, Chuen’s many different relationships, with his mother, wife and Fion are arguably more compelling than his own self-exploration, and the film’s best and most moving moments tend to come through the people around him.
This is partly due to the fact that Aaron Kwok is only decent in the all-important lead role, clearly not looking mixed race enough, and sporting some strange dyed red hair. To be fair, the actor is never actually bad or unconvincing, and does bring some pathos to Chuen, though never succeeds in bringing the kind of complexity and inner conflict needed to make the identity theme hit home. Thankfully, the usual substandard western actors aside, the rest of the cast are all excellent, actresses Charlie Young, Annie Liu, Josie Ho and Paw Hee Ching bringing depth to their characters and helping to prop up the rather blank Kwok. As a result, the film is rewardingly sympathetic and moving in places, Yim wisely steering clear of too much obvious melodrama or cheap sentiment.
Where “Floating City” really excels, is as a film about Hong Kong itself and as a fascinating document of its modern history. As a locally made film with local concerns, this is very welcome indeed, and Yim does a great job of balancing nostalgia with an eye for realistic detail. The setting and the film’s depiction of the end of the British colonial era and of the lives of the Tanka boat people are engrossing, and Chuen’s story definitely works better when seen as a symbol of change and confusion against this background. Yim handles the theme of discrimination well, and though it does feature some at times unintentionally amusing white stereotypes, the film is complex and intelligent.
As a result, though flawed, “Floating City” is a very worthwhile and accomplished film, and a solid addition to Yim Ho’s distinguished CV. Whilst it doesn’t always quite connect on an emotional level, the film is rich in historical and social detail, and is the kind of production that it’d be nice to see more of from the Hong Kong film industry.
Ho Yim (director) / Ho Yim, Marco Pong (screenplay)
CAST: Josie Ho
Hee Ching Paw
David Peatfield … Dick Callahan