|After establishing himself as a box-office brand name, Pang Ho-Cheung brings us the polished family drama Aberdeen, an attempt in a more mature direction for the fan-favorite smartass filmmaker. Not that Hong Kong Cinema’s enfant terrible has left all his tricks behind. Aberdeen doesn’t obviously pander to the Vulgaria audience, but it’s got an irreverent attitude and geek references, plus a fantastic edge that should appeal to Pang’s smart, plugged-in fan base. This is a well-made work that initially dazzles with its assured direction, strong visuals and postmodern touches. Pang delivers perhaps his most ambitious film by toning down his hip self-awareness and exploring deeper, more substantive themes. But as much as the film confirms Pang’s prodigious abilities, it also highlights his weaknesses. Pang’s fans will find much to like, but Aberdeen is also a frustrating reminder that he still can improve.
Aberdeen is difficult to encapsulate briefly, so I won’t even try. The story covers a series of turning points in a Hong Kong family, as they change and grow – basically a midlife crisis movie starring an entire family. The nominal lead is Tao (Louis Koo), a successful professional tutor who’s overly concerned with the notion that his daughter Chloe (Margaret Lee) is not that pretty. The mother is aging actress Ceci (Gigi Leung), who’s dealing with her decreasing cachet as an artist (producers now want to cast her in exchange for sexual favors) and also a secret that she’s hesitant to reveal to Tao. Ceci’s lone confidante is Tao’s sister Ching (Miriam Yeung), but Ching has her own issues: She receives an ominous returned package in the mail from her dead mother, which dredges up old fears that she was unloved by her parents. Ching’s doctor husband Yau (Eric Tsang) is naturally concerned, but an adulterous affair with his young and very needy nurse (Jackie Choi) may get in the way.
Presiding over this brood is their father, Dong (Ng Man-Tat), a Taoist priest who’s dating club girl Ta (Carrie Ng) – a fact that leaves Tao nonplussed. The family meets up both separately and together, their conflicts simmering, and Pang comments on the developing discord in a decidedly oblique manner. Aberdeen intercuts its human drama with events around Hong Kong that serve as metaphors for the family’s emotions. An active World War II bomb is discovered in Wanchai that’s primed to explode, while Ching works at a Colonial-era bomb shelter where she hides within the safety of its concrete walls. A whale beaches itself on the Hong Kong shore like a displaced immigrant gasping for air, while dream sequences take place in a scale model of Hong Kong inhabited by Greenie, a Godzilla-like version of Chloe’s pet chameleon. These details lend richness to the film, and are aided immeasurably by Jason Kwan’s lush cinematography. Buoyed by its strong atmosphere and assured pacing, Aberdeen easily qualifies as one of the most impressively-made Hong Kong films in recent memory.
Overall, the actors handle their roles well, and Pang demonstrates a strong handle on his cast. Louis Koo is fine, but his role as a judgmental father/son/husband feels largely ornamental. Conversely, Gigi Leung is a standout, bravely taking on a role that’s easily one of her most revealing, both physically and emotionally. Miriam Yeung handles Ching’s introverted pain and instability well, earning both doubt and sympathy from the audience. Eric Tsang is subtly compelling, and compared to the rest of the leads, does the most with the least. Supporting roles are solid, with a few notable Pang Ho-Cheung players (Chapman To, Dada Chen, Derek Tsang, Lawrence Chou) making key cameos. Pang’s direction is remarkably confident; the film moves between fantasy and reality assuredly, and the dreamlike moments can be lyrical and quirky. Hipster fans should like the pop culture references and in-jokes, including nods to Pang’s apprenticeship at Lucasfilm and Louis Koo’s hobby as a fantasy/sci-fi toy collector.
In a departure for Pang Ho-Cheung, Aberdeen favors compelling emotions over whip-smart cool. Audiences should identify with both the characters and their emotions – though some situations are beyond what might be considered “normal.” Plot development is quite good. Ceci’s story involves a hard look at her demoralizing profession, and Ching’s journey includes an engrossing dream sequence where she boards a paper effigy of a car driven by a paper taxi driver. These effigies are for burning at Chinese funerals – gifts for the deceased to use in the afterlife – and their use both affects and disturbs. There’s symbolism everywhere in Aberdeen, such as the events happening around the city, a traffic sign touting “All Destinations”, and even the title of the film. Aberdeen is a port town in southern Hong Kong, and in Cantonese is called Heung Gong Jai, meaning “Little Hong Kong” – a name derived from its history as an immigrant port. The meaning of the movie title? Probably that the film is intended as a microcosm of Hong Kong.
If only the film could resolve its conflicts as successfully as it announces its aspirations. Belying his assured direction, Pang Ho-Cheung spoon feeds the meaning of his film directly to the audience through long soliloquies, usually with one character explaining their feelings while another listens in rapt silence. The speeches connect the dots too easily. Metaphors are verbally explained as if Pang suspects the audience is too dense or not paying attention – which truthfully may describe the majority of movie audiences. Pang takes great pains to explicate what he means, and the result is didactic and even condescending. The “All Destinations” sign? One character namechecks it near the end of the film and mentions its exact significance. The beached whale? One character intones solemnly, “We are beached whales.” Such on-point dialogue is pretentious and glaringly self-aware, and made worse because more often than not, it resolves whatever issue is currently under discussion. Miracle cure-all speeches work better on the page than on the screen.
Also, with the notable exception of Chloe, the women are objectified characters – breastfeeding mothers, dishonest gold diggers, illicit lovers – who deal with problems largely of their own making. By contrast, the men are righteous fathers or caring husbands, and worry about principles rather than their own feelings. It’s somewhat telling that the film depicts Yau as an honorable adulterer, while the women self-indulgently navel-gaze or worry about things they have no control over. Pang deserves credit for giving his female characters detailed arcs, yet he places them in a reductive and sexist paradigm. The situations do reflect Hong Kong’s deeply sexist society, but Pang never shows that he cares for or is even aware of this inequality. If Pang intends to mature beyond his hip populist origins, he needs to address more than just the parts of his films that hold his interest.
Aberdeen’s positives and negatives amount to two steps forward and two steps back for Pang Ho-Cheung. Pang’s strengths are all on display here – his intelligence, his affinity for taboo subjects, his strong ability with actors, and his assured style and humor. His weaknesses: a dependence on explanatory dialogue, a penchant for pretension, and also a lingering sexism. These may sound like high-level criticisms, but Pang is a high-level filmmaker and should be held to a greater standard than Patrick Kong and Wong Jing. We’ve seen these weaknesses before, like in Love in the Buff when Miriam Yeung verbalizes her own character arc twice, but that lack of subtlety can be attributed to the needs of a commercial film. Aberdeen needed a less obvious touch – perhaps the same that was applied to Pang’s dry and astonishingly underrated Exodus a full seven years ago. Pang should trust his audience to understand his films without over-promising and over-explaining every last detail. He’s one of Hong Kong’s smartest filmmakers, but he absolutely knows it. Modest reflection may help his work immeasurably.