Seen in early January 2008
Asian directors going abroad to make films often wind up foundering to some extent. Ann Hui's story of Chinese adrift in Japan is no exception. It reminds me a lot of Takeshi Kitano's Brother (about Japanese yakuza transplanted to Los Angeles). It is a "noble failure" that, for all its serious narrative flaws, is often visually quite striking.
This shows us the exploits of a trio of young Hong Kong Chinese who came to Japan to study. One dutifully studies, another has gotten embroiled with the yakuza (having caught the eye of a mobster's daughter). The third (played by Andy Lau) is drifting, sometimes going to class, sometimes cutting class to work at part-time jobs. His path crosses that of another Chinese student, one (played by Cherie Chung, in her last movie role prior to her retirement). Chung is a scholar by day and a bar hostess by night. Lau is smitten by Chung, but she is not interested in him (except as a friend, more or less). As it turns out, Chung is already in love with a yakuza, albeit one on the outs with his boss. He has returned from exile, seeking reconciliation, but proves to have inconvenient information. He is killed, but not before asking Chung to deliver the dangerous information. She, in turn, drags Lau into her problem. Things go increasingly less well for all concerned as the movie goes on.
With both fine cinematography (courtesy of Daving Chung) and good performances, where does the film go wrong? The most immediately noticeable problem is the film's absolutely abysmal score, which features way too much uninspired synthesizer doodling. But I suspect that one could, with sufficient strength of mind overlook this problem -- if it were the only deficiency of the film. A much more serious problem is the fact that the script is quite poor. It seems to make no attempt to imagine the realities of life for Chinese students studying in Japan -- and the Japan it depicts seems to be the Japan of mediocre action movies, and not the country that actually exists. Even worse, the script lurches about plot-wise, from one fairly arbitrary event to another. Surprisingly, the scriptwriters are WU Nien-jen (a Taiwanese writer who worked extensively with HOU Hsiao Hsien) and Raymond To (an occasional collaborator withTSUI Hark). One wonders just where this team went wrong.
Despite the flaws of the script, Hui anages to sustain the illusion of a credible story for long stretches here and there, even if all the pieces never quite come together. And Hui manges to do a good job of showing interesting bits of Japan's underside -- including not just places but also a remarkable cameo appearance by Kyoko Kishida (Woman of the Dunes, Autumn Afternoon) as an elderly prostitute. The Hong Kong DVD of this film is both cheap and reasonably good-looking -- so fans of Ann Hui, Andy Lau and/or Cherie Chung might find the DVD worth checking out.
Oh -- if you were wondering about the relevance of the English title of the film -- there is none at all. The Chinese name actually refers to searching, using one's utmost effort. A few more pictures: