|With big Chinese co-produced blockbusters and low-budget pop star fodder flooding the Hong Kong cinemas, it’s become increasingly rare to find thoughtful, slickly produced and down-to-earth films about Hong Kongers. In 2010, Echoes of the Rainbow and Love in a Puff filled that void nicely with believable Hong Kong-based characters and rich local stories. Butterfly director Yan Yan Mak and Gallants co-director Clement Cheng aim for the same market with Merry-Go-Round, a visually appealing ensemble drama fully financed by charity organization Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in celebration of its 140th anniversary. While the film scores points as one of the most beautifully shot Hong Kong films of the year, it also loses them for its labored two-hour-plus running time, a fragmented script and too much style over substance.
Pop singer Ella Koon (The Shopaholics) leads the film's unique cast of old and young actors, playing two roles from different time periods. We first see her as Merry, a wanderer who travels around San Francisco lamenting about what might be lost boyfriends, absent parents and a drug habit. After her latest stay at the local hospital, where she discovers she is suffering from a terminal illness, she heads to Hong Kong to meet her online friend Allen (Lawrence Chou). Meanwhile, Allen has his own San Francisco connection in the form of his aunt Eva (Nora Miao), a Chinese medicine practitioner who decades ago left Hong Kong and the family pharmacy business to take over its San Francisco branch. When Allen tries to sell the old Hong Kong branch, Eva blocks the sale, returns to Hong Kong and attempts to revive the business.
After being rejected by Allen, Merry wanders into the Tung Wah Coffin Home, which houses coffins that are mostly awaiting transport to their owners' homes in mainland China. The Coffin Home is run by the diminutive Uncle Hill (Teddy Robin, in the film's best performance), who hires Merry because she’s not afraid of a place filled with the coffins, plus a secret reason which becomes quickly apparent to the audience. It must be a pretty good reason because Merry has a knack for not showing up to work and doing whatever she wants. Meanwhile, Allen begins to grow reluctant about selling the pharmacy once he starts to learn more about the business from his aunt. However, his need for money – and the motivation behind it – still remains.
By the time Merry-Go-Round sets up its third story - Eva's flashback to her youth in the fifties (where she’s also played by Ella Koon) and her romance with a businessman's son (Lu Yulai) - the film feels so overstuffed that it seems to wander aimlessly without direction. Mak and Cheng easily have enough material for three movies, but connect them together into a single whole with a directionless script that offers meaning instead of resonance. The characters wander in and out of each other's lives with little in the way of clear motivation, and much of the stories seem to hinge on revelations about these characters' past rather than what makes them change for the future.
For reasons possibly related to its financier, Merry-Go-Round deals with its darker elements in a light manner, with anything remotely undesirable shown with subtle visual clues rather than direct references. Partly thanks to the acoustic guitar-based pop score by local indie group Ketchup, Merry-Go-Round comes off as an airy and unassuming drama with little dramatic tension and plenty of pleasant atmosphere. Each of these characters is dealing with their own demons, but each deals with them in an internal manner that’s difficult to connect to.
Also, the sound of the guitars is present in nearly every scene, including those that take place in the fifties. Ketchup - who sound like a Simon and Garfunkel tribute band too in love with their guitars – and their English-language ballads sound fine, both separate of the film and also as accompaniment to several scenes. However, their sound is omnipresent, intruding far too much into the film and knocking the viewers out of the emotions of some scenes. Whenever those guitars start strumming, it’s easy to become distracted.
One standout element worth praising is the cinematography by Jason Kwan. Many of the shot choices place too great an emphasis on camera movements, and seem to have been designed to impress film school students, but Kwan's use of light and color in the film is impeccable. Merry-Go-Round is easily one of the most visually appealing Hong Kong films of the year, and has enough dazzling imagery to warrant a big-screen viewing.
At the same time, the polished images also make it all the more difficult for the film to connect with the story. Merry-Go-Round is too warm to be a cold film, but its broad ambition makes the storytelling feel so fragmented that it's hard to find a point to get on board with it. As co-writer, co-director, producer, production designer, co-editor and probably the co-caterer, Mak likely holds the film very close to her heart, and seems to spend the entire production convinced that her film is meaningful and important. Aided by a very solid group of actors (though the older generation are easily playing one generation too young), Mak and Cheng certainly seem to have a lot to say in Merry-Go-Round, which explains the 124-minute running time. However, the two don't say these things in a manner that necessarily make us want to listen. (Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2010)