Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Asian International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit reelasian.com and follow theReel Asian International Film Festival on Twitter at @.
At the level of plot and genre, the latest work from Hong Kong filmmaker Philip Yung Chi-kwong is a crime film that concerns the investigation of a murder and dismemberment of a 16-year-old girl (based on an actual 2008 case). At the level of imagery, pacing, and tone, the film presents an introspective atmosphere that focuses less on the investigation process and more on the bland and subjective everydayness of the people enmeshed in the crime. Instead of following through predictably with a police procedural from a detached, forensic perspective, the film floats back and forth between several temporalities and the complex headspaces of the three main protagonists: Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok), the victim Wang Jiamei (Chun Xia/Jessie Li making her film debut), and perpetrator Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning also making his film debut). This approach not only subverts the trope of withholding the murderer’s identity until the end but also simultaneously blurs the boundaries between these roles on a moral spectrum and deconstructs their narrative purpose in the crime/murder mystery genre. Rather than reducing its characters to stock types for the sake of pure suspense, titillation, and action, the film concentrates on the characters as living, breathing people, for whom the murder ostensibly constitutes but one facet of the trajectory of their lives. True, it has its moments of meandering, an overlong running time, and several scenes that superfluously contribute to building the world of the everyday but actually lose some of its emotional concentration. Nevertheless, Port of Call draws in the spectator through solid, even great, acting from an ensemble cast headed by Kwok; moody cinematography by Christopher Doyle; and a visceral portrait of alienation and disconnect in Hong Kong.
About a third into the film, a young man walks into a police station and is stopped for his ID and reason for being there. His response: ‘I killed someone.’ The young man is Tsz-chung, a young portly deliveryman. His victim is Jiamei, recently arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland. Having thus revealed its ‘climax,’ the film also reveals that its purpose and interest lie elsewhere in trying to make sense of how such a gruesome murder could have taken place. While gory imagery, particularly of the dismemberment, distracts from the film’s overall subdued tone, it is ultimately not about exploitation. Rather, it is about injecting a perceptive, emotional depth to an otherwise tired genre often reduced to scientific processes and fast cuts. Yung, with Doyle and his cast, crafts a broodingly paced existential perspective of those involved with the case and the facileness of their everyday, which contrasts so shockingly with the murder itself but is undeniably so very much related to it. The often handheld camerawork in intimate proximity to the actors, particularly their faces and bodies, frequently in enclosed spaces (apartments, rooms, cars), immerses the spectator in this everyday in thus a very physical way. The result is an environment of quotidian banality and excess all at once: through Jiamei’s work in escort service/prostitution and her otherwise uneventful life filled with aspirations of fame; the men with whom she gets involved in this work, including Tsz-chung, who are imbued with a quiet, pathetic anxiety; and the men who investigate her death and past, especially Detective Chong, who exudes an eerie blend of world-weariness and optimism in his interactions with others. It is a community of psychologically ragged, lonely, and struggling individuals. The film’s heavy air of miasma certainly runs the risk of plunging the spectator into the absolute doldrums. It avoids this risk for the most part through its strong visuals and performances and highly fragmented editing.
The film’s formal dislocation reflects the emotional dislocation that cuts across practically all of the characters’ lives and gives them a fairly three-dimensional quality. Detective Chong is divorced from his wife and sees his young son only occasionally; Jiamei’s parents are also divorced and she moves from southern China, where her father lives, to Hong Kong to live with her mother and older sister; and Tsz-chung comes from a fragmented family as well, following the death of his mother and being estranged from his father. All such character details are revealed in achronological glimpses, however, which challenge the spectator to piece them together on his/her own. But this jagged juxtaposition of individual lives, past and present, invests the narrative with an almost hypnotic power, which captures and expresses more strongly the film’s world of unease than a strictly linear and expository presentation would have.
The film cuts back and forth across time to flesh out both Jiamei and Tsz-chung as people with lives and subjectivities and not necessarily to provide answers, which is part of its way of subverting the genre. The death of Tsz-chung’s mother in the mid-1980s while crossing the border between the mainland and Hong Kong or Jiamei’s recent past before migrating to Hong Kong are points that could be read as seeds of their future encounter and shared malaise-ennui. But they more so paint a sketch of the experiences of younger generations within the larger discourse of China’s socioeconomic growth and Hong Kong’s own development in relation to China that are not treated so often or so frankly and without judgment, let alone in a crime/murder mystery film.