If Besieged City is to be believed, then Tin Shui Wai is probably not a place you want to visit. Director Lawrence Lau returns to his Gangs and Spacked Out screwed-up youth stomping grounds for this look at young people in the notorious New Territories town, and how their lives basically suck. Ling (Tang Tak-Po) is a secondary school student whose daily life is an increasingly out-of-control nightmare. He wakes up to find a domestic squabble involving underage prostitution going on across the hall, and pushes his way through nearby cops and reporters simply so he can get to the elevator and go to school. Somebody soon turns up dead, but Ling can't be bothered - he's off to get an education.
But things aren't much better at school. Ling's education involves classrooms in constant disorder, and trips to a washroom where evil schoolgirls attempt to give young boys hair rinses in the urinals. At home, Ling's mother is in a morose state, and won't even object when her husband beats youngest son Jun (Wong Yat-Ho) for interrupting the horse race on television. The physical abuse drives Jun away, and nobody in the family seems to mind much when he stops coming home at all. Ling experiences moments of regret, but most of the time he's too busy trying to study so he can get out of Tin Shui Wai. However, even when he's taking a test, he's bothered by kids making noise and throwing things in the classroom - and then the cops interrupt his test to drag him into the hall for a little chat. Somebody stop the rain on poor Ling! News flash, kid: your life absolutely blows.
But Ling's life is an unending supply of Hershey's Kisses when compared to that of his younger brother Jun. The cops inform Ling that Jun is now in a coma after he allegedly murdered teenage mother Panadol (Wong Hau-Yan) and then tried to kill himself. Let's look at this situation: there's a comatose kid handcuffed to a hospital bed, who's due to go to trial for killing another kid who was also a single mother. Shocking, isn't it? And if that isn't enough bad fortune for one single thirteen year-old boy, annoying teen triads are also after Jun because they think he may know the location of a stash of drugs that Panadol was in possession of before she died. Even though Ling had nothing to do with Jun's or Panadol's activities, he's guilty by association - or so those annoying teen triads believe. If his brother won't give up the goods, they want Ling to do it instead.
Of course, Ling has no idea where the drugs are - and the threats apparently rattle him - so he starts digging into his younger brother's recent past. He soon meets Yee-Wah (Joman Chaing), the older sister of the deceased Panadol, as well as a few of Jun's and Panadol's common friends. What Ling learns is that Panadol was a serious poster child for trouble; not only was she into drugs and theft (and that's in addition to teen motherhood, mind you) but she consorted with a local gang leader and may even have been doing some distribution on the side. As Ling digs deeper, he discovers more and more about the crappy things going on around him, and the problems only begin with lousy public education, drugs, triad activity, domestic abuse, theft, teen parenthood, and murder. Factor in gang rape, betrayal, peer pressure, absent parents, homelessness, online gaming addiction, sexual abuse, and blackmail, and you get the point: life in Tin Shui Wai is completely screwed. But that was probably mentioned already.
Tin Shui Wai is a controversial setting for a current youth gang film, as the New Territories-located town has been dubbed a "City of Sadness" thanks to an abundance of social problems. In October 2007, a mother allegedly threw her two children out of a high-rise house estate window before jumping to her own death, and tales of unemployment, gang activity, and domestic violence are common in the area. The depiction of the town as a den of vice has not gone unnoticed; Tin Shui Wai has received plenty of negative media attention, but there have been positive takes on the town too. Ann Hui's The Way We Are, which premiered at the 2008 Hong Kong International Film Festival, depicts a Tin Shui Wai with citizens and problems that are local and identifiable, and not sensational or sordid like the ones the media is more likely to report. According to Hui, Tin Shui Wai is a place with common people and universal truths, and isn't just the "City of Sadness" it's made out to be.
In a sense, Besieged City can also be given the "universal" label, as many of the problems on display could conceivably take place in any city with disenfranchised youth. Lawrence Lau doesn't focus on Tin Shui Wai's ills as some sort of socio-political critique. Though the government's poor handling of the town is largely blamed for its social ills, these issues don't really pop up in Besieged City. The town's name is mentioned only a few times, most notably in a "I'm in Hell in Tin Shui Wai" singsong uttered by a depressed, drug-addled teen, but overall the film possesses little overt judgement for the area. However, Lau does get critical in an oblique manner, his camera frequently tilting upwards to gaze at Tin Shui Wai's high-rise housing estates, concrete monuments to the rapid urban development that the town is known for. Even though Lau isn't assessing blame, he is pointing out, most definitely, that this film is taking place in Tin Shui Wai. Considering the town's recent media attention and the overriding public perspective that Tin Shui Wai is a lousy place to live, and you have a film with a loaded and inescapable context.
Does Besieged City really succeed as a portrait of Tin Shui Wai, the City of Sadness? Probably not, as the film only uses Tin Shui Wai as a setting and doesn't really connect its portrait of crappy lives to anything more telling about the town or its situation. However, its portrait of wayward youth is a harrowing and even compelling one. Lau uses mostly unknowns and wrings effective performances from them. As the sisters, Joman Chiang and Wong Hau-Yan form a tragic twosome, and Wong Yat-Ho's innocent youth plays a strong counterpoint to the horrors that he faces as the unfortunate Jun. Lead Tang Tak-Po is probably the weakest link, though his stiff-necked role gives him some license to be wooden. The lack of glamour, plus the dirty settings and unknown faces gives the film an immediate credibility, as the actors feel like people and not personalities. Nobody here is a popstar, and the most well-known actors are probably Joman Chiang from Butterfly and Jonathan Lee Yat-Sing, who played Simon Yam's son in the Election movies. Belief that these are real kids acting in real ways is easy to come by.
However, the film loses points for its clumsily-handily pseudo-mystery narrative. Ling's investigation into his brother's life comes with multiple flashbacks, each occurring when a new piece of information is gleamed in the present. Somebody utters a line of revealing dialogue, there's a quick reaction, and then we get the visual explanation via flashback. The technique is effective, but a little too hammy, as the revelations come with loaded, frequently cloying surprise. Since every revelation in Besieged City is resoundingly negative, one can almost call the film predictable. It helps that the characters seem real, as they manage recognition if not actual empathy during the course of the escalating atrocities. But the shock and sadness start to wear off, as the spiral of misfortune becomes never-ending. Everything terrible short of a bloody massacre occurs in Besieged City, and the parade of unhappy times can get didactic, tiring, and even numbing.
What buoys the film is Lawrence Lau's engaging style, and the involving storytelling and images. Besieged City starts on a harrowing note, but it does manage to make its characters and their situations matter. Thanks to the film's flashback structure, we know that everything is going to end badly for Jun and his friends, and waiting for things to turn rotten makes for some acute tension. We witness Jun form a friendship with the girl he eventually confesses to killing, and even when the kids engage in petty theft and minor drug use, they retain some sympathy. So what went wrong that made Jun into a murderer? Why did the kids' friendship fall apart? These are strong questions, and Lau assembles his elements in such a way that it feels worth it to hang around for the answers.
Unfortunately, the answers come buried under layer after layer of "wow, that sucks" atrocities, such that "City of Sadness" doesn't even begin to describe Besieged City's version of Tin Shui Wai. "City of Escalating Misfortune" or "City of Oppressive Human Crappiness" would perhaps be better names. The film doesn't really succeed as a social drama, as its descent into droning negativity lacks greater significance beyond an immediate reaction. Still, that immediate reaction is quite strong, and packs more punch than most current Hong Kong movies can. Regardless of its greater impact, Besieged City is still worth a visit for its craft, its intentions, and simply its effort. (Kozo 2008)