Chasing Dream (Hong Kong/China, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]

For those who are familiar with the filmography of Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, Chasing Dream is less of a surprise in terms of its narrative, imagery, and performance styles, among other things, than in terms of the fact that To has completed a film at all, given that his last work was 2016’s Three and the intended Election 3 is still gestating. For Chasing Dream puts an end to what is the second longest gap between films in his career (including his co-directorial work with Wai Ka-Fai), the first being the gap between his directorial debut and sophomore film back in the 1980s. Let us hope, then, that with Chasing Dream To resumes a steady film output. With this film, To proves that he is quite far from losing the kinetic and magnetic energy that marks a number of his films, regardless of genre or through the blending of many genres, while exploring and showcasing his take on contemporary pop culture and competition.

In fact, Chasing Dream may just be one of To’s most kinetic films, with its two-pronged trajectory of characters pursuing their spot in the limelight — Tiger (Jacky Heung) an MMA fighter and restaurateur, Cuckoo (Keru Wang) a singer-songwriter — in beat-the-clock fashion, not to be famous for the sake of being famous but to genuinely follow through with their self-belief and fully realise their sense of self, all while earnestly supporting each other, flaws and all. Crucial to generating such kinetics is the visual constant in the film of cross-cutting between Tiger either fighting in the ring during his MMA bouts or serving and engaging his customers at his newly established hotpot restaurant and of Cuckoo participating in round after round of the singing reality competition show Perfect Diva by singing and dancing in a variety of styles and genres, on a stage or on the roof of her grandmother’s eating establishment in the countryside. That Tiger and Cuckoo have to confront, or is driven by, a wound from the past in the process of their respective roads to self-fulfillment injects a dramatic charge to the fast-paced and dogged manner in which they pursue their individual goals. Although, to be frank, there is less authenticity or interest to be found in these wounds-from-the-past than in the breakneck speed with which Tiger and Cuckoo chase their dreams, hence the title (though the literal Cantonese title is My Boxing Boyfriend).

In one sense, one cannot help but think of Chasing Dream as a kind of contemporary update of To’s Throwdown (2004). Aside from being what could be called “sports noir” films (MMA and jiujitsu, respectively), with the former possessing a musical component, these two films explicitly share themes of self-determination and redemption through bodily performance, including injury. In another sense, it is not just Throwdown that To references in Chasing Dream. Arguably, he references his entire life’s work in that it makes use of several genres, most prominently, romantic comedy, sports, and melodrama. Indeed, Chasing Dream showcases To’s tirelessness in simultaneously experimenting with, blending, and poking fun at a host of genres to arrive at what could be more cheekily described as a musical sports noir. While the resulting film may not necessarily be to everyone’s liking (it is not without its moments of unadulterated cheesiness and can come off as too eclectic and all over the place), it is nevertheless undeniably earnest through its characters and thus acquires a charm all its own and gets under one’s skin. Plus, from a formal perspective, the way that To seamlessly brings together different genres and tones, all held together by the thematic framework of self-determination and self-belief in the face of major and minor setbacks, provokes interest; maybe even more so than the actual narrative itself.

For as filled to the brim and no-holds-barred their enthusiasm and physicality of their performances may be, lead actors Heung and Wang still leave a fair amount to be desired in terms of onscreen charisma and chemistry. They are perhaps the least memorable elements of the film, to be perfectly blunt.

Apart from the film’s play with genres, that it is so steeped in popular culture is another compelling aspect that holds more interest than the lead actors, their characters, and their performances put together. Chasing Dream really nods to singing reality competitions in both a sobering, melodramatic and a mocking, cartoon-like fashion, and the kind of public performance of self and body that operates in them, through the individual and collective trajectories of Tiger and Cuckoo, especially the latter. The sometimes cutthroat way in which emotions and experiences are made public — or, put another way, the voyeuristic making-public of emotions and experiences — the issue of fandom, and (the power of) the vote that have all been commodified with and through reality competition shows are all interestingly addressed within the context of both consumer and participatory cultures. On this last point, despite the pizzazz of musical sequences, Chasing Dream even has links to the Election films (however oblique) and its own exploration of the politics of competition.

Chasing Dream is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.