Aberdeen (Hong Kong, 2014)

Continuing to explore Hong Kong life while avoiding being pigeonholed by genre, Pang Ho-cheung follows the foul-mouthed film industry satire Vulgaria (2012) with the comparatively sedate drama Aberdeen. Although it still has a fair share of laughs, it’s a more consciously mature work with members of Pang’s repertory company cast as an extended family that serves as a microcosm of contemporary life in the multi-faceted city state: the film’s title refers to a former Hong Kong fishing village whose name in Chinese means “Little Hong Kong”.

Aberdeen focuses on the individual and interrelated crises of the Cheng family, which range from emotional yearning to more material concerns. The patriarch is Dong (Ng Man Tat), a Taoist priest who, after the passing of his wife, has started a relationship with nightclub hostess Ta (Carrie Ng), which is not entirely approved of by his children. His daughter Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung) is a museum tour guide who feels she was never fully loved by her parents, particularly her deceased mother. Her physician husband Yau (Eric Tsang) tries to tend to her emotional needs but is distracted by his affair with an alluring nurse (Jacky Choi). Wai-ching’s younger brother Tao (Louis Koo) has become a local celebrity through his media-savvy tutoring business which involves teaching young women how to use their looks to secure wealthy husbands. As his superficial life philosophy is based entirely on appearance, Tao is concerned about the future of his young daughter Chloe (Lee Man Kwai) who he has nicknamed ‘Piggy’ due to the likelihood that she is not going to grow up to be a stunning beauty. This is particularly dispiriting to Tao because, aside from his handsomeness, his wife Ceci (Gigi Leung) is a thirty-something model and actress who is started to experience the limits of a pretty face after her initial rush of fame. Now being overlooked for roles in favor of younger stars, Ceci is pressured into providing illicit ‘favors’ for influential industry players in order to stay relevant.

If the film is ultimately less than the sum of these parts, it is because Pang feels a need to spell out the significance of thematic signifiers in order to satisfy the perceived needs of a mainstream audience that is not particularly keen on ambiguity. Pang shifts rhythms throughout the film, introducing his characters and their various dilemmas at a fair pace with minimal exposition and smooth crosscutting, but later slows the tempo to allow each a reflective monologue to make sense of their frustrations while their partner patiently listens. These scenes are nicely played by Yeung, Leung and Tsang but also distractingly over-written in a manner that reduces much of film’s imaginative symbolism – the discovery of an active World War II bomb in close proximity to Wai Ching’s home, traffic signs that offer a choice of destinations, paper effigies and the possible reincarnation of a deceased family pet – to banal realizations. This misjudgment aside, Aberdeen features some of Pang’s most elegant filmmaking to date, largely thanks to Jason Kwan’s luminous cinematography which providing a warm palette that enables Pang to seamlessly blend acute social commentary with enchanting magical realism.

There are two fantastical sequences that find the director at his most playful, one of which has Chloe wandering around a scale-model of Hong Kong while the other finds Wai Ching taking a ride around the city in a taxi made from paper. The monster movie references in Chloe’s dream extend Pang’s cheekily affectionate integration of pop culture iconography, which also comes into play through Tao’s hobby of collecting Star Wars toys. He frequently visits his preferred seller and former classmate (Chapman To) to make sense of his familial problems, only to receive life guidance culled from the contentious history of Lucasfilm. Pang sees such classic blockbusters as a source of nostalgic comfort, but considers the current film industry to have forsaken innocent escapism in favor of cynically chasing the latest commercial trend, as evidenced by the derivative vampire movie that Ceci is currently shooting.

Cameos from previous Pang collaborators Dada Chan and Shawn Yu provide further meta touches, although smart humor here plays second fiddle to illustrating a society that is trying to reconcile traditional values with the myriad challenges and temptations that are associated with life in the post-global metropolis. Many of these contradictions are embodied by Tao, a caring father who balances the demands of a high profile career with a hands-on approach to parenting yet also places such value in appearances that he has come to suspect that Chloe may not actually be his daughter.

While the all-star cast is terrific, their sometimes self-referential performances lend Aberdeen the insider feel that generally works to Pang’s advantage but here undermines his efforts to craft a truly heartfelt mosaic. However, this is still a highly engaging study of upper middle-class malaise which finds Pang coming tantalizingly close to the greatness that he will surely achieve in the near future.

Aberdeen was shown on July 10 at the New York Asian Film Festival.