No.7 Cherry Lane (Hong Kong/China, 2019) [TIFF 2019]

As local Hong Kong cinema has undoubtedly lost momentum over the past decade, its presence on the international film festival scene has also noticeably diminished. When Yonfan’s No.7 Cherry Lane premiered at Venice this year, pundits were quick to point out that this was the first time a Hong Kong film had screened at one of the big three European film festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Venice). At the Toronto International Film Festival, the last time a fully Hong Kong-made production screened was in 2016 (Wong Chun’s Mad World). Yonfan’s newest directorial effort is therefore a welcome presence, despite being an imperfect and sometimes frustrating cinematic experience.

Paying homage to 1960s Hong Kong, No.7 Cherry Lane is set against the backdrop of anti-colonial protests that were ramping up during that time. Ziming (Alex Lam), a Hong Kong University Student, begins tutoring Meiling (Zhao Wei) while forming a close relationship with her mother, Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang). The three characters form a bond that is juxtaposed against numerous literary references throughout the film. In a rather abstract fashion, the tensions of civil unrest and forbidden love are explored both directly and tangentially through the storytelling powers of animation.

Credit must be given to Yonfan for continuing to experiment with the cinematic art form at the age of 71. He is truly an industry veteran and those who are familiar with his career will know that his artistic efforts go beyond the realm of filmmaking, and that certainly shows with No.7 Cherry Lane. The animation techniques utilized by Yonfan are distinctive and derive primarily from hand-sketched backgrounds (on rice paper, no less), which adds a unique flavor to the film’s visual style.

The appearance of the film is far from what you would normally see in more conventional animation projects, and its experimental nature is interesting, if not completely groundbreaking. In fact, the distinctively slow animation properties of the film (especially with any kind of body or scenic movements) were actually quite distracting from a narrative standpoint. At times, it felt like a test of endurance to fully process the narrative elements of the film, which makes the unique animation both a strength and flaw.

What’s perhaps most notable here is Yonfan’s dedication to both the literary and (to a lesser degree) cinematic history of not just Hong Kong and China, but well beyond the boarders of Asia. Choosing to make his film using animation certainly gave him more creative freedom to pay homage and make reference to a wide range of artistic influences. For any devotee of Hong Kong cinema, one particular reference to Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) towards the end of the film is sure to induce a rush of nostalgic euphoria. The film is certainly a labor of love for its director and feels deeply personal throughout.

But despite it’s visual and artistically progressive successes, No.7 Cherry Lane fails to land a strong emotional or political punch. It ends with a note of dedication to Hong Kong from the director, but it’s never apparent what message Yonfan is trying to paint when it comes to his vision or reflection of the former British colony. Even with some sense of ambiguity, which is to be expected, the film would have benefited from a clearer message on a macroscopic level. With so much personal depth and love injected into this film from a directorial standpoint, one would have hoped for a stronger sociopolitical statement by the time the credits were rolling. Part of this expectation may come from the general sentiment caused by Hong Kong’s current political landscape, but even that seems fair given the film’s overtly political storyline.

Being a Toronto native and longtime attendee of TIFF, the dwindling productivity of Hong Kong cinema at the festival has unfortunately become a newfound reality. And while film festivals are not a de facto indicator of a film industry’s overall vitality, it’s hard not to give credence to things like this given Hong Kong cinema’s historical track record internationally. No.7 Cherry Lane is far from perfect and not a classic example of Hong Kong cinema, but its presence at both Venice and Toronto this year is definitely a heartening one. Yonfan’s film serves as a literal reminder of Hong Kong’s past, while also hinting at the possibility of an artistic future, albeit from one of the industry’s oldest working filmmakers.

No.7 Cherry Lane was shown on September 10, 12 and 13 at the Toronto International Film Festival.