Besieged City/City Without Baseball

Lawrence Lau (a.k.a Lawrence Ah Mon) is one of the very few maverick non-commercial directors in Hong Kong. In a film industry that sneers at pretensions, artistry and box office failures, the independent Lau has somehow managed to carve out a career over a twenty-year period though admittedly that has only totaled fourteen films – Wong Jing used to do that in a year. Very few of these have met any success at the box office and most have disappeared in a flash. After his 1995 film One and a Half quickly slid into obscurity it took him five years before he was able to make another – but he seems to have returned in 2000 with renewed energy and since then has done perhaps his best work – Spacked Out, Gimme Gimme, My Name is Fame, City Without Baseball and Besieged City. His films are often very local and don’t travel well – and his best films dig into the black unseen heart of Hong Kong exposing alienated teenage gangs or the seamy red light district. Using almost all non-professional actors Lau has directed three powerful films about growing up in a frighteningly unfriendly uncaring world – Gangs (1988), Spacked Out (2000) and Besieged City (2008). Gimme Gimme (2001) took a gentler look at Hong Kong teenagers. Besieged City was one of two films from Lau presented at HKIFF. City Without Baseball was the other. Here are quick clips on both.

If one tracks the trajectory of his disaffected youth films from Gangs to Spacked Out to Besieged City, it becomes clear that Lau has not grown soft or optimistic over the years. Besieged City is like Spacked Out on crack – a ferocious downbeat look at unwanted youth caught in the violent fissures of society. Unlike the girl oriented Spacked Out, the youths growing up in these ugly impersonal tenement projects don’t even have each other to depend on. This is a social cluster fuck – parents that only pay attention to you when they are smacking you, a school system that is a dangerous minefield and friends who turn on you like wild dogs if they have to. Deng has learned to stay invisible to survive school but this doesn’t help him when one afternoon outside school he is taken captive by a punk gang who tell him that his younger brother has killed someone and stolen a cache of drugs. They tell Deng that he had better find out where the drugs are or he will be killed. His soft spoken innocent young brother had left home a few years before after one too many slaps from dad and had joined a young co-ed street gang that spent their days sleeping, screwing, stealing and snorting anything that is in powder form. As Deng tracks down other members of the gang to question them, the story of his brother’s descent into hell and criminality is revealed but it also seems possible that his brother isn’t responsible for the murder. Deng hopes to get to the bottom of this mystery and save his brother and redeem himself before he becomes one more statistic. The film is a hard riveting punch to the gut – visceral and depressing without a light at the end of this black black tunnel.

My rating for this film: 7.5

City Without Baseball is a very different affair. Lau and his scriptwriter/producer Scud take a unique and curious look at baseball in Hong Kong. Unknown to just about everyone, Hong Kong has a baseball team that competes in international competitions such as the Asian Games and acquit themselves with some honor if not a great deal of success. Wanting to tell their story – one of noble perseverance in the face of anonymity – Scud and Lau build a story around them and in most cases actually use the real ballplayers to fill the roles of themselves. It is an interesting little oddball film that feels very undisciplined and unfocused jumping around from character to character with at times no discernable purpose – but to some degree that is the charm of the film. It centers for the most part on three characters – the new coach hired from Taiwan, the star pitcher and a rookie – and their love affairs off the field. In fact very little of the film actually takes place on the field until the end when it shows some clips of their real games at the Asian Games when they played teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (they have baseball teams too!). It never quite works as a whole but there are a number of rewarding scenes that are either amusing or slightly rueful. The film has received a certain amount of notoriety for its many nude scenes – but not as is the norm of women but of full frontal male nudity. So for those who complain that they don’t get to see enough male nudity, this one is for you. Some of it may seem reasonable – guys in the locker room – but two scenes of a guy running naked on a beach for absolutely no reason are honestly exploitation of another kind. Rumor has it that the male nudity was added because some buyers were interested in marketing the film to gay audiences. This may also explain a late rather clumsy gay subplot that is brought into the narrative.

My Rating for this Film: 6.0

Viewed at the HKIFF