|The debut feature of writer-director Chan Chi-Fat, Weeds on Fire chronicles the true story of Hong Kong's first youth baseball team, the Shatin Martins, who won a regional tournament at the end of their first year in existence. That true, inspirational story was massaged and even marginalized on its way to the big screen. Weeds on Fire features a fictionalized version of the team's journey as its framework, and uses its
baseball storyline as a vessel for familiar themes like Hong Kong social problems, political issues and existential youth musings. It's 1984 and Lo Kwong-Fai (Liu Kai-Chi), a school principal in the Shatin district, pushes for the requisite funding for a little league baseball team – an unusual move because baseball was not (and still isn’t) popular in Hong Kong. His students are from low-income families and far from the crème de la crème, but Lo passionately argues that joining a baseball team may help some of the kids get on the right track.
Despite the board not seeming to like Lo's plan, Superintendent Donald Tsang (the same one who later became Chief Executive, played here by stage actor Poon Chan-Leung) goes along and Lo soon puts together a motley crew of stereotypical teen boys. There's the class monitor, the big-talking blowhard, the China immigrant – the group is quickly and effectively sketched, but the story mainly deals with Lung (Lam Yiu-Sing) and Wai (Tony Wu). Friends since childhood, the pair are close but very different. Wai is the tough and charismatic alpha male while Lung is reticent and exists entirely in Wai's shadow. Much of Weeds on Fire's narrative has to do with Lung's growth, as the baseball team helps him to mature and embrace his own identity. However, crucial to Lung's change is accepting a larger role on the team from Principal Lo. Wai was previously the center of attention, but with Lung threatening to usurp that, a schism forms between the longtime friends.
Lung and Wai are the focus of the entire film, with the baseball scenes largely used as metaphor for their changing friendship. Broadly speaking, the film touches upon familiar themes of self-confidence, humility, identity and growth. These are tried-and-true subjects for a coming-of-age film, and the filmmakers meld everything together effectively. Chan Chi-Fat shows solid filmmaking chops, using parallel action, montage and voiceover to present his characters and situations in poignant and lyrical ways. The political themes are also successfully integrated. The film opens and closes in the present day at the 2013 Umbrella Revolution and not-so-subtly ties Lung's journey to Hong Kong's ongoing struggle for universal suffrage. The film's politics are not as striking or daring as anything done in Ten Years, but Weeds on Fire should be more appealing to general audiences. Chan Chi-Fat ties together the personal and political with a slew of common tropes – first love, delinquent youth, triad societies, teen pregnancy, infidelity, broken families – and finds effective emotion in many of them. It's actually amazing that it all works as well as it does.
Despite being relegated to supporting character status, Principal Lo remains an intriguing figure, and even shows some unexpected cunning. At the one point, Lo deceives Lung to help him escape Wai’s shadow, and while he has good motives, one wonders if he isn’t behaving unethically for an educator. However, the film never takes the time to examine Lo’s character, and settles on letting Liu Kai-Chi’s fiery passion and integrity define him. Some of Liu’s mannerisms are a bit too theatrical for a man in his position – e.g., at the first board meeting Lo acts like a strutting prima donna and still is able to secure funding for his baseball team – but the performance is a commanding one. Tony Wu shows surprising charisma as Wai, though he has to carry a lesser load than Lam Yiu-Sing, who works as an approachable blank slate for the audience to identify with. The character is basically an ugly duckling with few flaws, and arguably gains the most personality from his present-day voiceover, which is provided by Jan Lam.
It is a bit disconcerting that Principal Lo is shoved into the background of what should be his story and replaced by fictional characters acting out a lighter version of Made in Hong Kong. Shouldn’t the story of Hong Kong’s first baseball team be propped up by social and political themes and not the other way around? This is an issue without a right-or-wrong answer so let’s skip past it and proceed thusly: Looking at Weeds on Fire regardless of its accuracy, it’s actually very easy to admire its style, lyricism and craft. Chan Chi-Fat takes a sports movie framework, applies it skillfully to an overstuffed examination of lower class life, and affectingly honors the hardscrabble spirit of the Hong Kong people. Weeds on Fire stylishly and successfully tells a uniquely Hong Kong story, and credit is due to its promising young director. Chan should absolutely expect a Best New Director nomination at the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards. He’ll probably lose to Wong Chun (Mad World), but if Chan can squeak out a win it wouldn’t be an upset.