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Living the dream under the 5-star flag

VIFF, Richmond's Gateway host very different Hong Kong responses to Chinese domination

I'll take the high road and you take the low road. Images: VIFF, Gateway

For generations, Hong Kong “belongers” (as natives of the erstwhile British Crown Colony now style themselves in contradistinction to rootless expats or mainland Chinese interlopers) have had a keen – almost prideful – sense of existential freedom, living in a “Borrowed Place on Borrowed Time.”

But, since 1997, the city’s historical IOU’s have come due and, year by year, its Beijing creditors have been tightening the screws.

Vancouverites – and especially local Cantonese, many of whom retain Hong Kong links – can only look on, rapt (or maybe aghast) at the ongoing Sinicization of their old stomping grounds. Addressing that challenge is a matter of lively interest not only in Hong Kong, but even on this side of the Pacific, too.

So much so as to pack local theatres for a couple of very different takes on the question – a documentary that world premieres tonight at International Village and a stage play at Richmond’s Gateway theatre. Both performances feature Hong Kong “belongers” who have made their separate peace with Beijing.

For one of them – blues-strumming, poetry-slamming, protest-marching, serially womanizing, wine-swilling, chain-smoking, street-busking, abstract expressionist muralist Yank Wong – it’s just a matter of staying true to himself. Director Angie Chan’s indie documentary, I’ve Got the Blues, portrays Wong living in the moment, reckless of consequences or received wisdom.

The other programme, Sky High Productions’ Travel With Mum, adopts another kind of accommodation with Beijing: fulsome jingoism and Confucian sanctimony.

The stage play retells – in Cantonese, for no obvious reason – the purportedly true, nationally broadcast saga of a septuagenarian Manchurian reality TV celebrity. This paragon of filial piety supposedly hand built a pedal-powered trishaw to trundle his 99-year-old mother the whole 30,000 km breadth of China all the way up to Tibet.

The Blues documentary, which world premieres here at International Village on Wednesday, is visually stunning. Chan intercuts voluptuous pans of Wong’s exuberant artwork with atmospheric Hong Kong and Paris street footage, impromptu ‘candid camera’ vignettes, passionate monologues, intimately voyeuristic interiors and lots of smoky, boozy, musical conviviality.

We even get to peek in on two separate reunions between Wong and a couple of his long-lost daughters, begat upon two different French mothers back in his art student days in Paris. Far from blaming him as a deadbeat Dad, each of the stunning hapa girls seems charmed by their irascible sire.

The film’s editing is tight and the camera work is edgily verité – apt for such a doting portrayal of Hong Kong’s vie Bohème. Heartening that such a demimonde shouldpersist in a city more known for globalized venality and authoritarian oversight than for free-spirited abandon.

The only overtly political moment in the film is Wong’s attendance at a mass, 22,000-strong protest rally on the anniversary of Beijing’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. In an impromptu follow-up debate with fellow beatnicks, Wong takes violent issue with a cynic who dismisses the protesters as “naive.”

But the most crackling debates in I’ve Got the Blues are between Wong and director Chan herself. He balks at her instructions, deflects her queries, second-guesses her artistic choices and impugns her motives – all with a sly, shambling smile that drives her into sputtering, on-camera tirades.

Friends of 20+ years’ standing, they bicker like an old married couple (although Chan, a California-schooled veteran commercial director, insists, in a phone interview, that “he’s hardly my romantic type.”) In the final scene, Wong attributes his recalcitrance to Chan’s visceral need for scriptable predictability, versus his own penchant to simply play it as it lays.

So from the outset, he tells her, “I know this film is not about me; it’s about you. I’m just here to save you from your own misery.” And, for once, she lets him have the last word, ending the film with a rousing blues chorus.

Travel with Mum, Hong Kong’s other recent entrant in the Vancouver arts calendar, is not entirely without artistic merit, either, quite aside from its ideological baggage. But the aesthetic is diametrically opposite the rich embroidery of Chan’s Blues. Instead, the Sky High production opts for a stripped-down, almost Brechtian, stagecraft and a simplistic sentimentality.

In the hands of the five-member ensemble, quarter staves become mountains, forests or glaciers; tossed sand becomes a shoreline or a sirocco; an upended packing crate can be a makeshift hovel or a five-star Shanghai high-rise; and a single bike tire can denote a rickety trishaw or a swank limo.

The monomaniacal Mamma’s boy fits right in with China’s exaggerated fixation on filial piety, and the continent-spanning itinerary is sure to warm the heart of any Chinese super-patriot. (Spoiler: Mum never makes it alive to Tibet, but her ashes get sprinkled on the Roof of the World).

One wonders where Sky High might venture for its next script – perhaps a paddleboard foray to the Spratly’s, Senkaku or even Taiwan?







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