Authentic-looking efforts to recapture a long-gone Hong Kong are few and far between these days, and it's not hard to see why. Today's nostalgic shoots usually mean trips north to major studios or finding mainland and Macau streets to capture smaller postwar scenes - hardly cheap options for local filmmakers. Even if there is, say, a row of shophouses that can be found at home, there's usually a wider CGI city vista that still needs to be pieced in.
In Freddie Wong's 1960s-set The Drunkard, however, there's a bold attempt to shoot locally with far fewer resources, and yet the images Wong delivers (in a debut feature as director, no less) are often just as evocative, and the sense of place even more so. The basis for the quietly observed film is Liu Yichang's 1963 book of the same title, a work acclaimed as Hong Kong's first stream-of-consciousness novel and one in which the stresses of the city's rapid growth can't remain hidden for too long.
At the heart of the tale is Mr. Lau (John Chang, of Love Massacre and A Brighter Summer Day), an aging mainland Chinese émigré stuck in a boozy haze and struggling to get by as a writer. The city in the early '60s is already money-mad, and disenchantment is never far off for anyone trying to make it in the arts - at the start Lau sums up his situation by speculating how Hemingway would have dealt with cutthroat Hong Kong publishers, then later complains, "Writers' sweat and blood get no protection."
A young idealist friend (Joman Chiang playing a male character) starts a literary journal and gets him involved, but soon Lau's taking a stab at screenwriting for an unscrupulous filmmaker and churning out martial-arts and porn potboilers for the dailies instead. It doesn't help the writer's lot that he's shuffling from home to home amid sex-charged run-ins with women, and that his drinking, delusions and commercial struggles could set him on a crash course to oblivion.
Like Mr. Lau, Shanghainese-born Liu, who arrived in Hong Kong via Chongqing in 1948, hopscotched between serious writing and newspaper pulp fiction, and autobiographical flourishes turn up in The Drunkard. In adapting Liu's novel, Wong retains the playfulness, experimentation and touches of fantasy that coursed through Liu's more highbrow work, and he has the author on board as a script consultant. Casting indie-film queen Joman Chiang in a dual role keys in with Liu's narrative gymnastics, as too do tangential intertitles. One all but namechecks Wong Kar-Wai, whose In the Mood for Love and 2046 were influenced by Liu's writing.
Also intriguing is how the '60s-era concerns remain current, and not just in the age-old art-commerce quandary. Film buffs in particular are thrown a bone when a producer (Yim Ho) turns up, pushing Lau to cash in on trendy Mandarin-language cinema. Just mine the classics and don't sweat it, suggests the producer, as The Drunkard's audience brings to mind retreads and quickies chasing mainland box-office spoils. Nuggets like that make The Drunkard a treat for cineastes and culture buffs alike, although Wong's picture is sometimes too understated for its own good: count on an encore screening to get more from the script.
In re-creating scenes of old Hong Kong, Wong and his production team deliver plenty with little. Priced out of shooting major street scenes, or just unable to find enough sights intact in modern Hong Kong, the filmmakers narrow in on closer detail: gorgeous cheongsams, cramped tenements, shopfronts, quiet bars, seedy offices and red-light sleaze. Henry Chung's lensing is vivid, art director Yank Wong combines reconstructed and real-life sets seamlessly.
The actors aren't dropping their game even if they've taken a pay cut. John Chang's central performance, with the actor speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, is in capable hands as the character boozes through self-pity and cynicism yet remains dryly comic. The actresses who become entangled with him, from Katie Kwok (as a 17-year-old vixen) to Irene Wan (playing a lonely housewife) to Joman Chiang (as a troubled dance-hall girl), put in strong, even daring, showings. A small roster of cultural figures checks in for other key parts — from director Yim Ho and actor, writer and satirist Lam Chiu-Wing through to Wei Wei, the lead actress of 1948's Spring in a Small Town.
The Drunkard is among the few small and unequivocally Hong Kong–focused pictures, from Cheung King-Wai's KJ to Philip Yung's Glamourous Youth, that in the past few years have made it to well-deserved commercial runs, traveling beyond the festival circuit local indies usually inhabit and making regular local moviegoing all the richer. For film buffs who prefer their Hong Kong Cinema served with lashings of action and rampaging emotions, Wong's gently unfolding movie will be too low-key. But for those who do choose to follow its central character's chain of inebriated encounters and dilemmas, and soak in its often sordid period atmosphere, The Drunkard offers more than its fair share of ambitious and passionate cinema. (Tim Youngs, 2011)