Comrades (Almost?) and the ‘Lost’/’Journey’ Series: Lost in Hong Kong (2015)
Lost in Hong Kong is the concluding film of a ‘lost’ or ‘journey’ trilogy begun in 2010 with Lost on Journey. The first film in the series was directed by Raymond Yip and stars Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang as a businessman and migrant worker, respectively, who encounter each other – and comically frustrate and foil each other in the process – during the hectic lunar New Year’s travels in China. The second film in the series, Lost in Thailand (2012), this time with Xu as the director, reunites Xu and Wang as hapless tourists joined by a third party in their border-crossing travel adventures in the titular country. Lost in Hong Kong presents Xu behind and in front of the camera yet again, only this time with a fairly different cast that comes together in the titular city.
Among the three films, Lost in Hong Kong is perhaps the most interesting on several textual levels, which makes the viewing of it rather complex for what is on the surface a comedy centering on romance, marriage, family, regrets in the past, and possibilities in the present. Each of these levels operates depending on what the viewer brings to the table in terms of comedy tropes, Hong Kong film history, and China-Hong Kong political and sociocultural history. Lost in Hong Kong pushes the ‘lost’ and journey motif to its logical end, with a look at now-reintegrated Hong Kong from the perspective of nearly twenty years later since the 1997 handover and a primarily mainland Chinese one, at that.
At the level of story and comedy tropes, the film boils down to being the fantasy of romance from the past that one has the opportunity to resolve (or perhaps consummate) in the present. As the extended prologue establishes, Xu Lai (Xu) is an aspiring painter along with a roomful of his high school senior classmates in 1994. Among these classmates are Yang Yi (Du Juan) and Cai Bo (Zhao Wei); the former becomes Xu Lai’s close and romantic friend while the latter remains a platonic one. Yang Yi, however, accepts to go to an art university in Hong Kong upon graduation while Xu Lai and Bo opt to remain in China and gradually establish a relationship that leads to marriage. Ten years later, Xu Lai and Bo are still married but the former’s sense of stagnation is all too palpable. They are set to travel to Hong Kong on a family trip, which also means meeting up with Bo’s eccentric and cloying parents, siblings, and other relatives. While in Hong Kong, however, Xu Lai also has the chance to reunite with Yang Yi at her art exhibition. But a series of obstacles involving Bo’s docu-cinephilic, camera-carrying, naive younger brother Lala (Bao Bei’er) delays this reunion and, of course, allows for a series of comic situations that make of Hong Kong a veritable film studio playground.
This narrative arc shares a kinship with the comedy template of the impending end of bachelorhood, with said bachelor feeling anxiety and having the chance to right some wrongs or rekindle past loves before passing the marriage threshold and, in the process, fall into a chain reaction of screwball mishaps with his bros, only to realise in the end that his life is great after all. Xu Lai, with anti-bro figure Lala in tow, embarks on a similar journey peppered with stunts, gaffes, and colourful local characters in his quest to see Yang Yi again. At this level alone, the film delivers some laughs but is not exactly memorable. Both Xu as the repressed, hen-pecked male figure and Bao as the comic foil and conscience maintain an animated enough presence together as they face obstacles (mainly a film shoot, triad members, corrupt cops), especially since they are the focal point of practically the entire film. But after yet another mishap that prevents Xu Lai and Yang Yi meeting, the film becomes one too many mishaps and the comedy becomes rather thin.
However, returning to the prologue, the film operates on another, more interesting, textual level. The aforementioned developments between the three characters are presented in montage fashion, set to Cantopop from the era. Moreover, Yang Yi and Xu Lai’s dating before they part consists of painting movie posters and watching these same movies together, which just happen to be classic 1980s/1990s Hong Kong films: among them, Rouge (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), C’est la vie, mon chéri/Endless Love (1993), and Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996). This prologue sets the film’s use of nostalgia for all things Hong Kong culture (particularly cinema and music) as a visual/aural/thematic background to Xu Lai and Lala’s adventures in the city.
Comrades in particular ends up as a recurring visual and thematic image: the faces of Comrades’ lead actors Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai appear first in the form of a painted movie mural during Xu Lai and Yang Yi’s school days, then as a DVD case that drops to the ground as Yang Yi leaves for Hong Kong, and finally as Xu Lai’s painting as a reunion gift to Yang Yi when they finally meet again in Hong Kong. In retrospect, singling out Comrades is a clever narrative detail. Comrades tells of two mainland immigrants (one from the north and one from the south) who encounter each other in Hong Kong in search of better prospects. The two develop a friendship that also crosses over into romance, yet they are separated by both their respective life trajectories (marriage and ambitions) on the one hand and sociopolitical regional circumstances that impact these trajectories on the other hand. Yet the two remain connected by romantic fate despite their migrating movements and ultimately find each other in New York. What signifies their connection regardless of where they end up – or what ends up re-linking them to each other – is their shared love of Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng’s songs.
Lost in Hong Kong also recounts a budding couple, although it takes the ‘Almost a Love Story’ part of Comrades’ title to refer to both Xu Lai’s marriage to Bo and his youthful romantic experience with Yang Yi. Which pair presents ‘almost’ a love story and the actual love story is the film’s dramatic hook and climax. Moreover, if Comrades reflects the imminent 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China from Britain, so Lost in Hong Kong registers the massive socioeconomic shifts that have occurred between/in China and Hong Kong in the last nearly twenty years. In both films, Hong Kong presents a bustling city of opportunities and cultural diversity. But if in Comrades, made by Hong Kong filmmakers, the city stands as both a site and a gateway to greater overseas travel in the pursuit of economic welfare, in Lost in Hong Kong, made primarily by mainland Chinese filmmakers, the city is the site of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, artistic creation, and tourist travel. Unlike Comrades’ nomadic leads, all of Lost in Hong Kong’s main characters are visibly upper-middle- to upper-class on the basis of art (painting) and commerce (Xu Lai’s family-in-law’s largely successful undergarments business).
Comrades operates more along the lines of cultural nationalism, in the sense that the lead characters are tied less to traditional notions of territorial-based nationalism than to mobile/portable popular cultural products like Teresa Teng’s songs, particularly as they migrate from mainland China, to Hong Kong, and then to New York. Lost in Hong Kong presents a variation of – or plays with – this same cultural nationalism in its use of Hong Kong the city as its destination/backdrop and of Hong Kong culture as the object of non-Hong Kong residents’ nostalgia such as Xu Lai and Yang Yi. Hence the plethora of references to Hong Kong films principally from that hugely successful and prolific era of the 1980s and 1990s, in dialogue or in action, such as Police Story (1985, when Xu Lai and Lala drop upon a double-decker sightseeing bus), A Better Tomorrow (1986, a line from which Lala mentions to a corrupt cop in the film’s kidnapping subplot), Chungking Express (1994), and even a much later Hong Kong film, 2046 (2004). A most palpable reference is director/producer/writer Wong Jing, whose production shoot is disrupted several times by Xu Lai and Lala’s unintended escapades.
But, arguably, Wong’s cameo is a double-edged sword, depending on the viewer. It can be read as a nod to that glorious Hong Kong filmmaking heyday on the one hand. On the other hand, it can also be read as a nod to the now-established practice of Hong Kong-mainland productions in the name of survival for Hong Kong filmmakers, for better or for worse. Wong references these two filmmaking eras most explicitly with his Hong Kong ‘God of Gamblers’ films of the late 1980s/1990s, which he has recently revamped in co-production style as the ‘From Vegas to Macau’ films begun in 2014 and still going strong with a third film set for release in 2016. This cultural double-edged sword is but a jump away from the political tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong in the wake of the 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution,’ in reference to Hong Kongers’ protests against Beijing policies on Hong Kong elections. In this context, the title Lost in Hong Kong develops its own double-edged meaning.