Director Pang Ho Cheung's latest film is steeped in symbolism, from a giant monster to people in a paper city.
Singer-actress Miriam Yeung takes a ride in a car that is made of paper like it is an offering burnt to the spirits. She then steps into a paper apartment also made to be an offering to the gods.
In other scenes, a giant chameleon monster is seen stomping through a paper model of Hong Kong and a massive whale is beached on a shore, drawing a lot of curious onlookers.
Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung’s latest work, Aberdeen, seems to be loaded with heavy symbolism, if you are so inclined to look for them – and perhaps even when you are not.
That is because there is a camp of moviegoers who see him as the beacon of authentic Hong Kong cinema, as he continues to make films about the Hong Kong experience in an age when the city’s film industry players are increasingly heading north to China to make big-budget co-productions.
Aberdeen is – once again for a Pang film – set in Hong Kong and tells the story of an extended Hong Kong family whose members are plagued by secrets of their own. It stars top Hong Kong names, including Yeung, Eric Tsang, Louis Koo and Gigi Leung, and opens in cinemas tomorrow.
Its title refers to a neighbourhood to the south of Hong Kong Island that the English first came ashore in 1841, and is where director Pang says is arguably “where the story of Hong Kong begins”. The Chinese name for Aberdeen, “heung gong zai”, is also a pun for “Hong Kong kid” and “Little Hong Kong”.
Despite much evidence to the contrary, Pang refutes the notion that he could be the shining light of his hometown’s movie industry.
“It’s not like that. I just make movies that I would want to watch, about stories that I want to tell. I happen to feel for Hong Kong because I was born and raised here, and it just so happens that my mother tongue is Cantonese.
“But I do not set out to make movies only about Hong Kong. I’m not against making movies about other cultures too,” he says evenly.
In fact, his stance could be seen as quintessentially Hong Kong – ever so practical. Big- mission statements and symbolism are oh-so-European.
The giant chameleon and beached whale scenes, for instance, were included “just because I felt like it”, Pang says.
The 40-year-old adds with a chuckle: “I’ve always been a fan of Godzilla and I thought it’d be fun to have something like that in my work. And what better way to live out my fantasy than to play the monster myself, and destroy the city like that?”
The beached whale was something he had already wanted to include in his previous movie Love In A Puff (2010).
“When I was young, a whale beached on Hong Kong’s shores and I remember asking my parents to take me to see it, but they refused. So I’ve always had this vision of it and wanted to put it on the big screen. We didn’t have the budget to do it for Love In A Puff, and now we have more money, so I put it in Aberdeen.”
It is a sign of how self-assured Pang is as a director – and he has good reason to be. His slate of unique works has time and again been much feted no matter the genre – from his excellent urbanite romance Love In A Puff to arthouse drama Isabella (2006) to the hilariously crude sex satire Vulgaria (2013).
And even though his movies have so far all been rooted in the Hong Kong experience, he believes that they are stories that resonate with audiences everywhere.
Aberdeen, he says, is a “universal family drama”.
“Audiences don’t have to have exactly the same experience as the movie’s characters, but they can understand them. Similar family problems happen in many cultures across the world.
“Whether a movie is filled with local colour or not has nothing to do with whether it can travel. Look at Iran’s A Separation – it is very much an Iranian story, but still managed to travel far,” he says, referring to Asghar Farhadi’s story about the break-up of an unhappily married Iranian couple which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.
That is not to say that Pang does not value what his fellow Hong Kongers say about the movie. He does, which is why he took his time to make Aberdeen because he was waiting for his preferred cast to be available.
“Since this movie is about a Hong Kong family, it was crucial that I got a local Hong Kong cast. Maybe overseas audiences won’t be able to tell the difference, but a Hong Kong viewer would be able to tell immediately.”
Aberdeen opened in Hong Kong three weeks ago to positive reviews.
The South China Morning Post called it a “nuanced offering” and “a reflective drama-comedy that’s admirably mature and fresh in spirit”. Entertainment trade rag Variety praised the “finely observed family dramedy” for presenting “an elegant slice of life”.
Pang is pleased with the reviews, but is happier that audiences are inspired by the movie to reflect on their own actions. “Many viewers have told me that after watching the film, they attempted to talk more openly to their family members and that makes me really happy.”
He first scripted the movie five years ago, but put it on hold when his friend, veteran Taiwanese producer Chen Kuo Fu, told him that he was “not mature enough” to film it.
Pang says: “Now that I’m older, I think I can take on the subject matter. Being older has changed how I view the world. If I had made this five years ago, I think I would have given all the characters’ stories good, proper endings. But life isn’t like that. People can have regrets and never come to terms with them, so I altered the ending to reflect this.” — The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
Aberdeen is playing in cinemas nationwide.