Little Cheung

Reviewed by YTSL

Although Fruit Chan had previously directed two films (“Finale in Blood” and Five Lonely Hearts”), he really rose to fame with that which is known as the Handover or Reunification Trilogy.  These three works -- released in consecutive years from 1997 to 1999 -- for which he is the scriptwriter as well as helmer share a preoccupation with the return of Hong Kong to China.  They also possess a generally “realist” -- some might say downbeat -- tone that, nevertheless, leaves room for their auteur to embark on certain seemingly intuitive flights of fancy (which actually can put a damper on things even while they make matters seem more surreal than hyper-realistic) midway through them.

One such plot development -- or, as this (re)viewer is inclined to see it, defining act which precipitated a too abrupt and unneccessary change in the movie’s overall mood and direction -- led to the title character, a boy of only nine years named LITTLE CHEUNG, defiantly singing out lines -- from old songs associated with Tang Wing Cheung AKA “Brother Cheung” (the Chinese Opera and old movie star who this Doris Yang and Ueda Makoto co-production is dedicated to) -- like “My heart is broken, my luck ran out” and “Only god knows my true pain”.  I get the feeling that it will appall some people to learn that at the time that he (who is portrayed by an incredibly able young boy named Yiu Yuet Ming) was doing so, the film’s protagonist was standing naked from the waist down, out in the open air -- on the side of a public street outside of his father’s teahouse -- and in the rain; having been placed in that situation by the older man (Mr. Gin is played by Gary Lai) as punishment for having carried out an earlier act of rebellion.
A fair amount of sensitive viewers probably will be displeased too by LITTLE CHEUNG not only being a (part-time) child laborer for his father but being quite the exploitative little capitalist himself:  Not only given to asserting -- as he did early in the film -- that “I have known from an early age that money is a dream and...also a future” but also on the look out to hire an assistant delivery person to ease his work burden.  In a different kind of cinematic offering, the fact of this individual coming in the form of a girl who’s about the same age as the boy would probably be emphasized over the fact that she (who is essayed by Mak Wai Fan) is an illegal immigrant who (also) spends part of her days washing dishes for another eating establishment.  In this hardly cutesy effort (despite its having not just one but three child actors -- Fan has a little sister named Man, who comes in the form of Mak Suet Man), all those aspects of her identity are important and have a role in determining how Fan’s fate gets played out in the movie.
Throw a frequently put-upon Filipino maid (Armi Andres is Armi), a literally toothless grandmother (portrayed by Chu Sun Yau), a seemingly mahjong addicted mother (Mrs. Gin is portrayed by Chun Kwok Hei), a petty gangster (the actor who plays David is credited only as Robby), his elderly father (Mr. Hoi is essayed by Heung Hoi), a prostitute who looks to have a heart of gold and other assorted Yim Kee tea-house clients and neighbors -- including a couple of aged coffin-makers -- into the equation and LITTLE CHEUNG can seem to promise a wallow in depression and not much more.  However, and much to his credit, what Fruit Chan successfully and generally fashioned out of this collection of Mongkok-Yau Ma Tei area characters (all of whom were absolutely convincingly played by non profesional actors) was something that’s more akin to a love letter to Hong Kong and the inhabitants of those admittedly unglamorous sections of it that -- for all of its warts and problems -- is much more of a close-knit urban village than an impersonal and truly uncaring concrete jungle type of world.
Although LITTLE CHEUNG doesn’t hold together in my mind and memory as well as “Made in Hong Kong”, it does not meander -- and therefore threaten to bore, at least in sections -- the way that “The Longest Summer” did.  This equally dramatic and political work also may be the one that has some of the best and undoubtedly hard-to-forget moments and images of this set of very interesting films.  These range from the gag-inducing (including that which involves a used tampon dropped at least one floor down into someone’s drink as well as what is passed off as a special tea and/or lemonade!) to the poignant and nostalgic (namely that brought about by a grandson having the kind of loving relationship with his grandmother that he’s not able to have with his parents and his grandmother unfortunately doesn’t have with her son) all the way to the celebratory (notably that in which a gathering sings out that “I am blessed every day of my life”).
If only LITTLE CHEUNG had ended on that note and with that scene.  This regret notwithstanding, the fact remains that for much -- maybe more than three quarters even -- of this close to two hour long movie, I did think that Fruit Chan -- with the help of cinematographer Lam Wah-Chuen -- had painted a portrait of Hong Kong that had really captured many of the things that were special and to be valued about those of the territory’s folks who might be described as more salt than scum of the earth.  In any case, a measure of how much I still do like this sincere feeling effort -- despite its not having the conclusion I wished it had had -- is that I find myself very much looking forward to checking out the Fruit Chan offering that followed it (“Durian Durian” is said to be this one’s companion piece as well as part of a new movie trilogy -- this time involving prostitutes).

My rating for the film:  8.