Once upon a time in occupied Hong Kong…
It is 1942 and Hong Kong is under Japanese control. At some hideout in nearby Dongguan, captain Zeng Sheng talks to a dozen underlings about a rescue plan. One of them asks who is being rescued. Zeng Sheng says that agents from Nanjing are bringing a list of names to a Kowloon-based crime boss named Wong Kau-tin, who will hand it over to the Japanese. When asked why Nanjing would do that, Zeng Sheng simply says that they get benefits in return. It is not explicitly stated, at least in the subtitles, but Nanjing at the time was nominally under the control of a breakaway faction of the Nationalist party that was basically a puppet government for the Japanese. Anyways, Zeng Sheng tells them that this mission will be dangerous and the evacuees are expected to be given more food and oil per day than their rescuers. Of course. Everyone chuckles.
Another underling mentions that one of the routes in the plan will cross turf controlled by a bandit gang. So Zeng Sheng asks an elderly man called Brother Tsang to exercise his influence over a certain area.
A young man going by the name Blackie Lau (I will just call him Lau) walks down a path on a grassy hill and meets ten men who block his path. He tells them that Brother Tsang has asked for a favor. One of the men, most likely the boss, retorts that Tsang should respect the territorial boundaries. Lau says that Tsang requests only safe passage through. But they have never offered safe passage, and don’t plan to do so now. Will Tsang pay the protection fee?
Lau tells them that Tsang does not have that much money, and just a few men. He whistles and around two dozen men emerge from over the top of the hill, pointing rifles at the men below. While trying to maintain his cool in the face of greater numbers, the bandit boss allows the safe passage, in return for a favor given at some point in the future. Lau thanks him. Tsang, who was among the men uphill, silently does so as well.
Wait, hold on, they were only HALFWAY UP the hill? And all of the bandits were too focused on Lau to notice? Jeez, their security measures suck. Tsang could have just bulldozed through.
The story shifts to Hong Kong, where landlady Mrs. Fong serves tea and biscuits to her tenants, the Shens. It turns out that the Shens are planning on leaving and Mrs. Fong tries to make them change their minds. It is obvious that the cost of rent is not the issue, but the Shens are not allowed to reveal the real reason. After Mrs. Fong leaves, Mr. Shen reminds Mrs. Shen that no one can know that they are leaving.
Mrs. Fong is preparing food. She grabs a knife and goes to the cage where the rabbit is held. Wait…where is the rabbit?
It looks like Mrs. Fong’s daughter, Fong Lan, has taken the rabbit to the forest and set it free. Her boyfriend, Lee Gam-Wing, tells her that her mother will be angry when she finds out about that. Meat is expensive these days.
After a bit of time, Gam-Wing wishes Lan a happy birthday. And then, shortly after that, they notice a couple of men pretty close to them digging a grave while a young boy watches. Oh, the grave is for the boy’s mother. Ever the romantic, Gam-Wing takes this opportunity to propose marriage to Lan. Just a small wedding and a small banquet. And then he will cook for her every day. Lan asks why now.
Kind of abruptly, Gam-Wing tells Lan that the school has closed and his relatives have all gone back to the Mainland, so he has to leave. Lan is perplexed; he just proposed marriage and now he is leaving? What is the point of this? She starts to walk away, only to see what looks like a platoon of Japanese soldiers walking down the path in front of her.
A perhaps 1/3 full theater is playing Japanese military propaganda in untranslated Japanese. Suddenly, the movie is switched over to a notice in Chinese, saying that the Imperial Army invites several men to attend a meeting at a hotel. Mr. Shen is concerned, as his pen name of Mao Dun is on that invitation list.
Outside, Mr. Shen speaks with…some guy, who was also in the audience. The points out the perils of trying to leave. Gangsters will rob him and maybe kill him; traitors will turn him in to the Japanese. Mr. Shen tells the man to find someone trustworthy to help, and then stay indoors unless Mrs. Shen contacts him.
Mr. Shen goes to a bookstore, where a Mr. Tang shows him a book with the escape plan. He tells Mr. Shen to write down his address in detail so that someone can find him and his wife the next day. Since Mr. Shen does no know who will come for him, Mr. Tang says a coded phrase that the person will say, along with the response that Mr. Shen needs to give. Then he tells his employee to swap his clothes with Mr. Shen’s.
After some time, Mr. Shen is back at the apartment, listening to Lan recite some of his own poetry to him. Mr. Shen is impressed. Lan says that she loved his work since she was a student and has been introducing it to her own students. She tells him that she had never dreamed that they would be under the same roof. She asks why he and his wife are leaving. And the scene cuts before we hear his answer.
Mrs. Shen walks back from the…market…and is tailed by a pair of extremely shady-looking guys. She arrives at Fong’s and tells her husband that she was picking things up for the journey. Mr. Shen tells her to go fetch their friend, Zou. I guess that was the guy’s name from the previous scene. Meanwhile, the two shady guys loiter outside the building.
One of the guys finally enters the building. Lan, who had been eying them suspiciously, asks him who he is looking for. After being a little cryptic, the man says Mr. Shen. The man meets Mr. Shen, who has been burning some papers. The man asks if he is Mao Dun. When Mr. Shen asks who he is, the man dodges the question.
Mrs. Shen arrives with Zou, but Lan tells them about the strange man, and suggests that they hide somewhere nearby until things are settled.
Meanwhile, the man sits around while Mr. Shen packs, saying that they can go when Mrs. Shen returns. He talks a lot, but never says the coded phrase, so Mr. Shen says it instead. Now, regardless of the context of what he said, the man responds with such extreme cluelessness, that that should have given him away. Either way, it does not matter, because here comes Lau. He acts all friendly and familiar to the man, getting up close, and stabbing him in the neck.
After wrapping the dead man up, Lau says the coded phrase to a shaken Mr. Shen. Lau has to repeat it while holding up his knife before Mr. Shen comes to his senses and recites the proper response phrase.
Lan returns to see Lau carrying the corpse through the building, with Mr. Shen following him. Mr. Shen assures Lau that Lan is not a threat, so Lau tells Lan to free one of the corpse’s foot from the banister. Having been frozen in by the front door, Lan finally snaps out of it and helps out. When Mrs. Fan (she was here the entire time and did not notice anything??) calls for her daughter, Lan says that she is going to the shop with auntie.
The army siren is wailing. And the people shut their windows. The second shady guy guides about seven Japanese troops to the apartment.
Lau drops the corpse on the side of a building across the street while Lan brings Mrs. Shen and Zou out of hiding. Lau tells Lan to take the three evacuees to the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter at 7:00 PM. They have to leave before they get retrieve the rest of their luggage.
As the four leave, Lau goes in the other direction, coming across the second shady man and the group of Japanese troops. Once again, he acts all friendly and familiar to the guy, which throws all of them off guard for long enough that he can shoot them all and then run off before reinforcements can arrive.
The time has come, so Lan brings Zou and the Shens to the place by the harbor. They walk across a footbridge to the shelter. Mr. Shen apologizes to Lan for being so secretive, but Lan says that if Mao Dun has a problem, then she must help. He signs a book and gives it to her, promising to see her again after victory.
The three go inside and greet their friends and associates who were already there. Everyone has a story to tell about the rough and bothersome Japanese troops.
After standing on the footbridge for a while, Lan goes back home for dinner with her mother. No rabbit, but Mrs. Fong was fortunate enough to buy pork with some army money. She tells her that Mr. Shen’s friend came to pick them up and that he is sorry to leave so quickly. Mrs. Fong is upset that he did bid her goodbye, but Lan reminds her that they stayed for five days despite paying a month’s rent. Additionally, Mrs. Shen left some rice and canned food. With that settled, Mrs. Fong asks about Gam-Wing. Lan lies that he has work at the school, but her mother knows that the schools have closed, and suggests that they wait for him. Lan…does not wait.
At that point, people from somewhere start hitting on…metal things. A sign that a group of people are coming to abduct girls. Or an alert that a girl has already been abducted. Mrs. Fong turns off the lights.
At dawn, the evacuees cross the harbor in small groups by boat. In the morning, they arrive at…erm…some other part of Hong Kong, and have to follow the crowds who are going to the Mainland, specifically this one guy who is holding an umbrella. I am not entirely sure how all of that helped them to slip past the Japanese guards in the city, but it worked.
They make it to the pathway through the hills, finally meeting with Brother Tsang in the forest. He guides them past a mountain and towards unoccupied territory. All in all, over 800 intellectuals are safely evacuated from Hong Kong.
Oh, it’s over? We are not even 36-minutes in? Wait, that was not the full story, huh. Okay.
So, this movie came out at an…interesting time. It was released in the Mainland on the first of July, 2017, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic. Oddly enough, it was released in Hong Kong a few days later, coinciding with…nothing relevant. And, now I am posting this a few weeks after the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Anyways, the deliberate connection between the events of the movie and the handover seems to frame this movie not so much as being against Japan, as much as a movie about the Mainland’s benevolent actions towards protecting Hong Kong…or maybe not. My point, though, is that this happened during a time when Hong Kong’s relationship with the PRC was…ambivalent. There had been major protests only a couple years prior and there would be again a couple years afterwards. So having a movie like this released when it was is a little amusing to me. It makes me wonder who the titular “Our” is referring to, but it appears that their time certainly has come. It could mean the people of the Mainland and Hong Kong together as one. I mean, probably. Some of the dialog seems to have been dubbed, making me think that the movie was trying to paper over the Cantonese/Mandarin split. Or that could have just been due to the version that I watched. There is also a part of the movie where a Japanese soldier says that the British had enslaved the people of Hong Kong and the Japanese have come to liberate them. I don’t know if this was intentionally ironic or not.
It did not surprise me too much to see so many actors from the Mainland in the cast or actors from Hong Kong, or even a few from Japan. I was a little surprised that a couple Taiwanese actors took prominent roles. Then again, while the movie is about the exploits of Communist heroes, their politics do not really enter the story, so perhaps some of the actors could set aside the whole benevolence of the Mainland thing that I felt. Perhaps I am seeing something that is not there.
Also, Joe Hisashi of did the score for the movie, even though it is not mentioned in his Wikipedia page. A fun little detail. Yes, the guy who scored all of the Miyazaki films.
There is a large cast of characters in this movie. Of course, there is Lau and his band of rebels. There is also Gam-Wing and his co-worker Cheung Wing-Yin. The heart of the story, though, seems to be the Fongs. They are not badass rebels or spies; they are simply normal residents of the city trying to survive through difficult times. While a few less scrupulous Chinese have found a way to profit from the oppressiveness of the occupation, fear seems to be the only thing preventing all of the Chinese from rising up against the Japanese. And so it is with the Fongs. However, once rebellion comes to Lan in the form of the Shens and then Lau in particular, she starts to wonder whether she can continue staying on the sidelines. Mrs. Fong wants her daughter to be safe in a city infested with danger. And perhaps she is right to be worried. Mrs. Fong sees herself as a practical person. If her introductory scene is any indication, Lan is a gentle soul who could not bring harm to anyone. She would not last a week as a rebel. So, of course, Mrs. Fong tries to put a stop to any nascent or latent subversive tendencies within her daughter. She thinks that her Lan should settle down and get married, like her cousin. What happens, though, when there is just no avoiding what is coming?
It would be slightly misleading to call the film grounded. There is a sense of theatricality, especially when Lau is on screen being a smirking badass. Still, for a movie about war and spycraft, there are few overtly stylistic flourishes. There is one major exception towards the end, but instead of feeling out of place, I think that the movie earned it. For most of the time, though, the movie is…kind of quiet, low-key, and unsentimental. Yes, there is shouting and some action sequences, but the movie is not built around them. This movie is directed by Ann Hui, who also directed A Simple Life, so it should be no surprise that the movie has a similar tone. It easily could have milked the people’s hardships for all that they were worth like in the last movie that I talked about that concerned the Japanese occupation, but it mostly steered clear of that. I gather that Chinese movies about their modern heroes are not known for being overly emotional, so that is not too surprising. There was ever a moment that I had thought would lead to a big emotional sequence, but either that moment never happened, it was never written, or it was cut from the movie. It was an odd choice, but I guess that it was not necessarily necessary from a storytelling perspective.
The movie seems quite fond of the procedural aspect of the resistance, showing the different steps that the members take in executing a plan or acting quickly when something unexpected happens. They are not superheroes, but very competent, even though they sometimes make mistakes. That said, there are a few odd choices in terms of story or individual character decisions that lead to questions. There is that scene that I mentioned on the hillside path, where I wondered how no one noticed two dozen men with guns sneaking over a hill and getting halfway down. The scene with the forest burial. There are other scenes where I wondered how a group of soldiers did not take any notice of a gunshot. People seem to just not notice things happening close to them or choose to not notice them until they get too intrusive. And then, I did not really understand the whole sequence where the intellectuals all had to gather in one place in Hong Kong, only to get transported by boat elsewhere in Hong Kong, and then sort of melt into a crowd while still in Hong Kong. But I guess if you did not have an issue with how the different story beats in 1917 were pieced together, then you should not have an issue here.
Also, there is a framing device with footage from…several decades after the story. An older man talking to an interviewer about how he had taken part in these revolutionary activities, knew Lau, and was even a student of Fong Lan. I am not entirely sure if this was meant to simply tie the various stories together or whether they were supposed to add a sense of verisimilitude to the film itself. That director Ann Hui herself is interviewing the man suggests the latter. Then again, the man is played by well-known Hong Kong actor Tony Leung…no, the other Tony Leung. So, I doubt that Hong Kong audiences or even Mainland audiences would really buy that it is genuine. But that is fine.
I don’t really have an ending to this…but the movie doesn’t either, so it works out. I like the movie.
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