He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father

Though this UFO production was clearly influenced by the American film Back to the Future, it ignores that films sci-fi and the narrative driven plot to instead create a lyrical exploration of the relationship between a father and his son. In fact the narrative in He Ain’t Heavy is really quite weak and muddling at times and there is very little dramatic tension derived from it. One of the things from Back to the Future that was interesting was how Michael Fox was able to change the present by going back into time – but here nothing is really changed but the protagonist himself. In a sense though that is also its strength  – as this turns out to be a personal journey into the heart as much as a journey into the past.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (TLCW) has a very strained relationship with his father – Tony Leung Ka-Fai hidden behind a few pounds of make-up – and he blames his father for his own lack of success in life. His father has never made much money – and what little he has he gives away – and he seems completely satisfied with his middling seemingly unimportant life. This attitude infuriates TLCW who calls his father a loser – but it is clear to the audience that it is really TLCW who is the loser as he goes through life with a chip on his shoulder, cheating on his girlfriend (with his Chungking stewardess – Valerie Chow!) Anita Yuen and basically showing little respect for anyone.
After telling off his father one day, TLCW later receives news from his mother – Carina Lau – also behind a sludge of make-up and much body stuffing – that his father was hurt and is in a coma at the hospital. TLCW goes to a wishing well and like Alice falls through a hole and goes on a trip down Memory Lane. Literally, because when he comes out of the hole he has gone some thirty-years into the past into a little HK neighborhood called Memory Lane.
Memory Lane has a nostalgic and magical feel to it – and UFO does a nice job of recreating a period with clearly a small budget. It's a time when people were poor perhaps but still knew and cared for their neighbors and pulled together when they had to. Here he soon meets his father as the two of them team up to save two people falling off a roof – and he also sees many other people that he knew in the present. For some reason that is never made clear he also meets someone who looks exactly like his girlfriend – played by Anita again obviously.
One day a beautiful sleek convertible drives into Memory Lane with a dazzling movie star looking woman at the wheel – and after ogling her for a second, Tony realizes that this is his mother! Carina is the daughter of a wealthy man (Chor Yuen) and she has a bit of a thing for Big Tony but nothing serious. Her father wants to break up their relationship and Little Tony gets involved in this and all the other lives in Memory Lane. Along the way he gets to know and respect his father – who is actually a pretty cool guy who values friendships much more than money. So as opposed to Back to the Future – it is the son who undergoes changes not the father.
The film has a sweet sentimental gooey feeling to it that will draw the viewer in and the performances from both Tony’s are excellent (both Anita and Carina have much smaller but rewarding parts) and will make you care about their characters.  But the lack of a cohesive narrative, a script that has little dramatic resonance and an ending that is just very silly lessens the overall impact of this film.

My rating for this film: 7.0


Reviewed by YTSL

It might be due to it's having been a while since I last viewed the (original) Hollywood work that starred the boyish looking Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly.  In any case, apart from there being time travel by a son to an earlier era when his parents were in their physical prime, I actually don't see that this 1993 Peter Chan and Chi Lee co-directed film has all that much in common with "Back to the Future".  Put another way:  There is no de Lorean dream machine, eccentric scientist, obnoxious bully, wimpy father, high school prom and Chuck Berry to be found in this very Hong Kong effort (which throws out references to such real life luminaries as billionaire tycoon Lee Kar Sing and legislator Martin Lee as well as incorporates aspects of 1950s and 1960s Cantonese films -- including a spunky little female character whose name is a tribute Petrina Fung Bobo, a famous child star who grew up to become a pretty good adult actress -- into the Memory Lane it rather effectively recreated).
Yes, Peter Chan -- who produced as well as co-directed this work -- "may be the region's most Americanised filmmaker (his films often reworking themes and ideas from Hollywood movies" (Miles Wood, "Cine East", 1998:9).  He maintains though that "we made HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY FATHER (from) an idea we got from a couple of high school kids who actually came to the (UFO) office, about an old man who fell into the fountain of youth and becomes a young man and the father and son become good friends because their age difference is gone.  But...we made it the kid going back in time to see his father in his youth, and then we also realised that by putting him in the past we eliminate the father and son role.  Because (the) Chinese believe the problem between father and son is not because of personality but because of their roles.  So if we rid them of their roles then they can become equals and all the problems will be gone" (In an interview with Miles Wood, 1998:13).
Not surprisingly, HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY FATHER works best when it focuses on fleshing out that issue.  Well done too are this often indulgent film's depictions of what romantic idea(l)s and passionate inclinations prompted two people -- who WERE young once -- to decide to spend the rest of their lives with each another.  Ditto re its recreation (imagination?) of a kinder, gentler, more communal-oriented time gone by.  On a more trivial note, this (re)viewer also really enjoyed beholding this nostalgic work's three dance numbers; especially the extremely joyful -- and immensely fun to watch (so much so that I rewound and replayed that section of the movie a few times) -- one which had Tony Leung Kar Fai and Carina Lau spectacularly showing off their acrobatic dancing abilities to an ensembled crowd at her character's parents residence.
"Big" Tony is truly delightful as the flamboyant man his son hadn't previously had a clue he was prior to the latter's going back in time.  Carina is charming in her supporting role as the big breasted woman who loves and is loved -- albeit in different ways -- by her husband and son.  "Little" Tony Leung Chiu Wai -- Ms. Lau's long term beau in real life (a factoid which can make the scenes involving the two of them particularly funny) -- helps make his HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY FATHER son character much more lovable than many others might have rendered an -- initially at least -- ego-centric individual with at least one long held petty grudge.  And a fairly subdued acting Anita Yuen somewhat inexplicably -- but who minds, really?! -- has a dual role in this good-natured melodrama.
If only HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY FATHER had focused its sights more on this quartet and not attempted to cover as much ground as it did.  Instead, the film is peppered with subsidiary characters (including those played by Lawrence Cheng, Lawrence Ng, Valerie Chow and Chor Yuen (which is "Little" Tony's character's name and is likely a tribute to the legendary director), sub-plots and side themes galore.  Although a couple of them are amusing by themselves or perhaps lend weight to a particular point, they are generally responsible for the sense that this is one admirable attempt but uneven work:  Replete with loose ends, sometimes too schizophrenic as well as some gratingly one-note characters and also jarringly discordant chords (not more so than what occurs at the film's end).  Despite its technical and other faults though, I still very much think that the movie is worth viewing.  Especially if you're a fan of any of one of the Tony Leungs plus Carina Lau (and Anita Yuen; just realize that her parts ARE small), I honestly don't see how you won't be entertained and emerge with good vibes (plus even shed a tear or two over a bitter-sweet moment in this comedy-drama).

My rating for the film:  7.



DVD Information:

Distributed by Mei Ah

The transfer  is excellent.

Letterboxed

Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks 

There is no menu, no extras - the subs are burnt on Chinese and English