First Night Nerves (China/Hong Kong, 2018) [CVF 2019]

First Night Nerves finds internationally renowned Hong Kong auteur Stanley Kwan returning to the director’s chair following an extended hiatus. Perhaps in a calculated effort to undercut expectations that he will once again scale the artistic heights of Rouge (1987), Center Stage (1991), or Lan Yu (2001), Kwan has opted for a frothy meta-comedy concerning the backstage politics of a theatrical production. Written in tart yet scattershot fashion by Kwan’s regular collaborator Jimmy Ngai, it’s a busy affair with so many plot strands and supporting characters that its ostensible conceit – the rivalry between the play’s high maintenance female co-stars – is almost forgotten about at times. Nonetheless, it’s immaculately designed while Kwan’s gift for eliciting splendid performances remains undiminished.

It begins with the eagerly anticipated play Two Sisters in its final week of rehearsals. The leading ladies are Xiuling (Sammi Cheng), a veteran actress making a comeback, and younger starlet Yuwen (Gigi Leung) who is speculated to have swiped an iconic screen role from Xiuling years earlier (cue a nod to Rouge), thereby prompting her retirement. As signaled by the staccato strings of the lavish score by Yu Yat Yiu and Edgar Hung, the feared catfight between the stars is making this a tense preparation period while both actresses are also experiencing problems away from the spotlight. Xiuling’s return to acting has been necessitated by precarious financial circumstances following the death of her husband in a plane crash after spending much of his fortune on a secret family in the United States. Although she projects a hip, modern image with her short hair and snooker skills, Yuwen’s feels insecure about her level of ability as an actress and is still recovering from an affair with a director which ended painfully.

Further complications involve Yuwen passive aggressive creative dispute with the play’s director transgender director Ouyang An (Kam Kwok-Leung) while theatre manager Mao (Kiki Sheung) hopes rumors of a bitter feud between divas will spur ticket sales. There’s also the presence of bold lesbian supermodel Fu Sha (Bai Baihe), who not so secretly yearns for her special friendship with Xiuling to be something more.

Kwan may not have directed since his short segment of the 2011 portmanteau Quattro Hong Kong 2 but has been active as a producer, overseeing such romantically-inclined mainstream fare as So Young (2013), New York New York (2016), and Till the End of the World (2018), all of which were primarily courted the Mainland market. Although the production depicted in First Night Nerves is a play, with cinematographer Wang Boxue framing the rehearsals in a heightened manner that conveys the pressures of stage performance, Kwan is keen to comment on how Hong Kong’s film industry has become reliant on Mainland China. Yuwen is infuriated that the Beijing-based producers of her most recent film want to have another actress dub her dialogue because her Mandarin wasn’t considered to be up to standard but is still considering a lucrative role in a Mainland television drama. Taking a taxi to work, she realizes that the driver is none other than the director who launched her career – such is the fate of Hong Kong talents who don’t follow the tide.

Other potshots feel a tad redundant, particularly the increasingly gossipy nature of the local media and the lack of liberal attitude in Hong Kong’s arts scene. However, Kwan makes great use of the character of Fu Sha, who could have been a glorified gag, as she is blatantly inspired by the 2012 story of a real estate mogul claiming he would pay $65 million to any man who succeeded in marrying his lesbian daughter. Terrifically played by Bai in an unexpected detour from her typical sweetheart roles, Fu Sha enjoys the perks of celebrity as, without being involved in the play in any professional capacity, she is able to wander into dressing rooms and attend private dinners. Yet her sexuality entails that she must contend with being a tabloid media staple in a conservative society. Her identity has developed in an elite bubble and her fixation on Xiuling often seems the stuff of adolescent fantasy but Bai’s wholehearted performance ensures that Fu Sha is the film’s most spirited and sympathetic character.

With so much happening – Xiuling and Yuwen’s unfailingly loyal personal assistants are also in the mix – the supposed feud between the two actresses is only glimpsed in a few frosty moments when their paths cross off-stage. Still, some of the backstage drama revolves around the number of lines that each actress has been allocated – Yuwen is incensed upon realizing that she has 207 while Xiuling has twice as many. Avoiding a life imitating art situation here, Cheng and Leung not only have equal screen time but both get a big crying scene, complementing one another with layered public/private portraits of different generations of stardom. This results in an often pleasing, occasionally barbed, comedy that subscribes to the idea that the show (and, by extension, Hong Kong’s entertainment sector) must go on.

First Night Nerves is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 2.