The crime genre is inseparable from the appeal of Hong Kong Cinema, carrying the 1980’s and 1990’s Hong Kong New Wave to international acclaim with cult classics like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992), and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), the latter cited by Quentin Tarantino as a major source of inspiration for Reservoir Dogs (1992). The crime film is also responsible for modern Hong Kong classics, often directed by some of the most revered names in Asian Cinema, like Johnnie To’s P.T.U (2003) and Election (2005), Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2006), and Woo’s The Killer (1987). Even the most admired Hong Kong arthouse director, Wong Kar Wai, kickstarted his career with a gritty and vigorous crime drama, As Tears Go By (1988), a film heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). These films piece together an exotic image of Hong Kong, capturing the neon lights, the vibrant nightlife, the marginalized and violent youth, the dynamic gunfights, and male-on-male melodrama.
Despite its many iterations and themes, the Hong Kong crime film has always been an exercise of genre storytelling rather than an earnest exploration of the human condition. The glamorized gunfights and heroic stunts, carried out by iconic stars like Chow Yun Fat, Simon Yam, and Andy Lau, have always held more weight than the problematic relationship between Hong Kong’s youth and crime. Somewhere Beyond the Mist, the first fiction feaure from director Cheung King Wai, whose roots are steeped in documentary – KJ: Music and Life (2009), The Taste of Youth (2016) – is a rare film that borrows from the crime genre but disregards its conventions for a brazen confrontation with evil as an universal means to end immeasurable suffering.
Based on true events, the film begins with a weighty Dostoevsky quote from The Brothers Karamazov: “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.” The weight of this statement, however ambiguous, lands on the introduction of Angela (Stephy Tang), a police officer who lives with her husband and demented father, who is incapable of taking care of himself. 3-month pregnant, Angela puts on a cheery appearance but carries around an elusive resentment. She is in charge of investigating the murder of a married couple, which puts her in contact with their 14-year-old daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung), who displays an eerie sense of tranquility upon the mention of her parent’s death. What’s equally startling is the presence of Eric (Zeno Koo), Connie’s classmate, who stays with her in an obscure dormitory on the mountain.
The film takes a dark turn from the crime/detective setup when, after being shown photos of her parents’ corpses, Connie impassively announces that she is the murderer of her parents. Despite her understandable disbelief, Angela begins interrogating Connie and Eric. From here, the film launches into a refined dual-narrative, one covering the flashbacks of the events leading up to Connie’s murder of her parents, the other showing the unraveling of Angela’s mundane domestic life. We learn, from the flashbacks, that Connie’s father, Steven (Chit-Man Chan), a freelance truck driver, is an abusive parent who routinely yells misogynistic comments at Connie, rapes his disabled and taciturn wife, and beats Eric mercilessly because of a misguided suspicion.
Although often mislabeled as a couple, Connie and Eric are best friends who protect each other against bullies at school. Their marginalization is shared by Jessica, their Indian classmate, who also experiences some ugly bullying. The oppression of school life only adds to Connie’s rage towards her father, who does nothing to help except blame her. Equally resentful towards her complicit mother, Connie asks Eric to help her murder both of her parents. Angela tries hard to treat Connie’s story as strictly separate from her personal life, but her frustrations with the trouble her father causes at home grow. She sends him to an elder care center, and realizes a horrible truth about her relationship with him, one that leaves room for us to consider Angela’s and Connie’s shared inner demons.
Bleak, patient, violent, horrifying and strangely enlightening, the film mixes perfect doses of domestic drama, crime and horror, boldly delving deeply into the nature of evil and morality. It is no surprise that Yee Tung Shing, an experienced director of Hong Kong crime films (One Night in Mong Kok (2004), Shinjuku Incident (2009)), and Ann Hui, the guru of Hong Kong domestic dramas (The Way We Are (2008), Night and Fog (2009), written by Cheung himself), were both heavily involved in the making of this film: Yee produced it, while Hui served as Artistic Adviser. Despite the involvement of the two idiosyncratic filmmakers, Cheung imposes a singular cinematic world-view that toggles between the stylistic allures of the crime genre and the poetic mundanity in Hui’s domestic cinema. His success in this film is further marked by calculated interruptions from genre storytelling, through an embrace of his characters’ subjectivity.
One such interruption is in Cheung’s framing and composition, from which he displays, with the help of cinematographer Shermen Shu-Moon Leung, a keen preoccupation with contrasting spaces. Peaceful, calming and wide frames of Hong Kong’s mountains and countryside are sizzled between the dominating scenes of suffocating frames of homes. Not only do shots of open spaces disrupt Connie’s storytelling, they offer a window into Connie’s and Angela’s subjectivities. They are the romantic, albeit cliched, escape, from their insufferable lives. The ending shot of Connie and Eric walking their way up a gigantic Tai Mo Shan, one of the most recognizable mountains in Hong Kong, transcends narrative functionality to a peculiar sense of empowerment.
In terms of narrative, Connie’s main crime plot is broken up with scenes of Angela’s banal domestic life, indicating a detachment from narrative coherence and a refreshing interest in one’s interpretation of a narrative. Despite its dominating screen time and genre ties, Connie’s story isn’t the films’ focal point; rather, it is Angela’s interpretation of this story that really matters. What Angela sees in herself through Connie’s story is vastly more important than Connie’s motivation to murder her parents. This interest in interpretation reaffirms Cheung’s embrace of subjectivity, which challenges storytelling as the objective reality in genre filmmaking. In fact, Cheung abandons the myths of the crime film altogether, including the glamorization of solving crime, the redemption of the anti-hero and most of all, a dramatic hero-villain duality between detective and suspect. Here, an unsettling kinship binds these two.
Cheung’s success is propelled by the dynamic and composed performances of the seasoned teen-idol-turned-actor, Stephy Tang, and newcomer Rachel Leung (this was Leung’s first lead role in a feature film). Tang’s restraint could be mistaken as stoic and inexpressive, and despite the misinformed judgment that she is a pseudo-actor, this film forces viewers to wake up to the excellence of her acting, which deserves awards attention. Leung’s work is equally, if not more, challenging, balancing purposefuly over-the-top emotional outbursts and uncanny peacefulness and resolve. The pairing of these two speaks power not only within the film, but also in the context of a largely male-dominated crime cinema.
Although largely cynical and dreary, the film offers a few instances of resounding freedom that powerfully justifies its Chinese title, which directly translates to ‘blue skies, white clouds,’ a title that connotes innocence. Despite the more prevalent themes of violence and resentment, Cheung urges us to focus on moments of escape, and to somehow look beyond ‘the mist.’ He refuses to give us the answer to what’s on the other side, though, and embraces what he and Tang both call ‘lau bak,’ or ‘leaving blank.’ This daring ambivalence that Cheung leaves us with concerns societal problems with a fiery sensibility that forgoes the usual fixation with genre in the Hong Kong crime film. Although intentionally a non-commercial endeavor, this film will surely usher in more sophisticated topic films in Hong Kong, where a monstrous mist perpetually clouds the city’s vision.