For his debut feature film, Chan Chi-fat looked to a glorious but little known Hong Kong actuality in the heyday of the 1980s: the first youth baseball team founded in the New Territories in 1982, the Shatin Martins, and their unexpected win against the Japanese Buffaloes to clinch the Little League Cup championship in 1984. As with a number of small, local, and independent-made Hong Kong films in recent years and an echo of the 1980s output leading to the 1997 handover, Weeds on Fire is about a look back to recent Hong Kong history and a coming together of a group of disparate individuals in the name of local team spirit. Other films with a similar narrative include The Way We Dance (2013, dir. Adam Wong), The Midnight After (2014, dir. Fruit Chan), the documentary My Voice, My Life (2014, dir. Ruby Yang), Little Big Master (2015, dir. Adrian Kwan), and She Remembers, He Forgets (2015, dir. Adam Wong), providing simultaneously a warm remembering of things past as well as a sociohistorical beacon of a sense of collective localness in the present and heading into an uncertain future. Significantly, Weeds on Fire is the first completed project funded by the government-run First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI), which grants subsidies to first-time directors (chosen from a competitive pool of teams and their projects) to make their debuts. As a coming-of-age sports tale propelled by a can-do attitude, Weeds on Fire could not be a more apt initial face of FFFI to signal an important development in fostering and supporting a local filmmaking culture concerned less with CGI-peppered extravaganzas à la Hollywood or co-productions with the mainland and more with character-driven, community-based stories.
The film’s sentiments towards local character and community is nothing if not evident: scenes of street remnants of the Umbrella Movement of 2014 bookend the film and is the context for the introduction of main character Lung and reminiscing simultaneously about his experiences playing baseball with the Shatin Martins and growing up in public housing. His voiceover and perspective carry the film from the present to the past and back to the present again, thus immediately linking the film’s story of local team spirit and overcoming the odds to Hong Kong’s present sociopolitical situation. On the one hand, Chan and company succeed in conveying this context, infusing the story with layers of meaning that go beyond the literal victories of founding a baseball team and triumphing in the championship. On the other hand, in part due to its restrained budget, the film is a no-frills representation of the story and contributes nothing new to either the coming-of-age or sports templates. In fact, it hits all of the tried and true plot points associated with both genres; what prevents it from becoming all but pedestrian is the energy of the ensemble cast, the cornerstone of which is veteran actor Liu as Principal Lo.
In the early 1980s, newly planned towns like Shatin were considered dead ends. Best friends since kindergarten Lung (Lam Yiu-sing) and Wai (Chu Tsz-tung) live in the Wo Chi Estate, a public housing complex in Shatin, and are well aware of the stigma of their environment. Both also attend a Band 5 (the lowest-tier in the school system) secondary school. If not for the school’s Principal Lo (Liu Kai-chi), his emphasis on discipline, and an ambition to cultivate sports among the students, Lung and Wai would be getting into more trouble inside and outside of the school. However, with his appeal for a monetary contribution to promote sports accepted, Principal Lo sets about to found the first youth baseball team in the New Territories (in the early 1980s, baseball was rather a peripheral sport in Hong Kong), recruiting Lung and Wai among others. And so the checkered road towards individual and collective self-actualisation begins.
As if equipped with a checklist, a lot of the common plot/structural points of coming-of-age and rise-of-the-underdog sports narratives are present. Through Lung: the adolescent experiences of camaraderie within the baseball team; the special bond of brotherhood between Lung and Wai, including the challenges to it; the sting of crushes and romance, not to mention premature adulthood when desire/sex enters the picture. Through the team: the initial ups-and-downs of developing and maintaining team spirit; the first dispiriting match; the collective persistence in training and learning about the game. Every plot point is clear as day and followed through just as clearly and neatly for immediate comprehension and emotional puncturing.
The film’s style is no less familiar. Very breezy, music video-like editing maintains a brisk pace, while images are regularly set to nostalgic synth music to provoke emotions and close-ups guarantee clarity of motivation and feeling. Lung and Wai’s friendship also provokes ample use of parallel editing, particularly when their life paths diverge during the last third of the film, pitting baseball against gangs. As the film builds towards its denouement, the film employs montages to capture the stream-of-consciousness flow of Lung’s thoughts, as in right before his last pitch that determines the winner of the game or upon waking from the baseball hit that he takes in the face.
As baseball is a way to work through and counterbalance Lung’s personal problems in the film, so the film itself operates in a similar fashion to work through and counterbalance Hong Kong cinema’s problems and past in the real world. Like the bookend-scenes of the Umbrella Movement, archival footage of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration between China and Britain in 1984 — when Lung is subjected to so much personal troubles and confusions! — which sealed the handover of Hong Kong between the two countries without so much as a ‘what do you think?’ posed to Hong Kongers, reinforces the story’s notable sociohistorical/cultural context. Pictures of the real Lo Kwong-fai and the baseball team composed of actually much younger adolescents from Kei Kok primary school further bolsters this context at the end of the film.
As a teen sports dramedy, Weeds on Fire is a clockwork yet satisfactory film. As a local Hong Kong production, it is needed.
Weeds on Fire is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Monday July 4 at 2:10pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.