Big Blue Lake, featured in this week’s Hong Kong 15 Film Festival, brings together urban and rural identities
On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese government after 155 years of British colonial rule. Much like an adolescent, this semi-democratic Special Administrative Region has spent the last 15 years coming to terms with a hovering superpower and struggling to find its identity.
The Hong Kong 15 Film Festival celebrates the past decade and a half with a celluloid selection that features recent Cantonese crowd-pleasers, vintage classics, and modern favourites in the making. One of these includes Big Blue Lake, the second feature film from director Jessey Tsang.
Based on the director’s own experiences growing up in rural Hong Kong, this bittersweet story tells of Lai Yee and her return to her home village of Ho Chung after 10 years studying drama in Britain. Things have changed a lot in the past decade; old friends have given birth, the village has gained irrigation, and her mother has developed Alzheimer’s.
Much has, however, remained constant. The villagers’ insular outlook and slow-paced way of life endures, represented by lingering shots and lingering looks. These are accompanied by a nuanced use of sound, with echoing drips, Debussy-esque piano tinkles, and well-placed silences used to create a suitably serene atmosphere. The director’s initial background in sound design has given her an ear as strong as her eye.
The most striking difference between Big Blue Lake and the other films in the festival is its focus on the countryside. Most viewers are familiar with the skyscrapers and thrilling lights of the metropolis, but this film chooses to cast its eye over the verdant treetops of the New Territories, granting a refreshing and not often seen view of Hong Kong.
This is a world that initially seems alien to someone who has adjusted to a Western way of life, and yet it surprised me to see how commonplace it seemed to be for rural Hong Kongers to move abroad to Europe or the States. Even at the screening there was a large group of British-Chinese fans who had grown up in the UK, but had ties with the little village of Ho Chung. The director’s next project emphasises this phenomenon; she is currently finishing a documentary that follows a family from her village that travel to London, Edinburgh, and the US to visit various members who have emigrated and set up lives abroad.
This central theme of homecoming hones in on the predominant motif of memory, which is explored in several intriguing ways. Blurred memories are brought on not only by Alzheimer’s, but by one’s own imagination; the protagonist and her childhood friend are brought closer together, in part due to a memory that may or may not exist – of water and a big blue lake. Playing on the power of the mind to manipulate emotions and desires into realities, the director cleverly intersperses the film with interviews with the villagers, only to realise they were still players in the unravelling of the plot.
The villagers are a particular highlight of the film; though actors were used, many of the villagers played themselves. Hearing the stories of their youth in the docu-drama style Tsang adopted was touching, and their genuine delight in reminiscing shines through. One of them particularly affected me, as she had sang in my grandma’s native Hakka dialect with the same smiling yet slightly bittersweet eyes, and explained the lyrics afterwards like I had asked my grandma to.
The relationship between the villagers and Lai Yee represents a dichotomy between perception and reality – an extension of the memory motif. Lai Yee returns home, convinced the elderly residents have always disliked her, and her father will always resent her for running off to Britain to study drama, but is proved wrong with unfailing familial love and strength of community. In coming home, Lai Yee has confronted these perceived grievances to see them unravel before her eyes, and learning a lot about herself on the way.
In many ways, this film can be seen as a metaphor for Hong Kong. The landscape may change every week, but at its heart is a nation who has remained stoic, and who has spent the last 15 years coming home; not to China, but to itself. Through self-critique and reflective introspection, the Pearl of the Orient will continue to emerge stronger and more self-assured.
The Hong Kong 15 Film Festival continues at the Odeon, Covent Garden, until 14 July 2012. For more information, please visit: http://hk15filmfestival.com.
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