Drifting (Hong Kong, 2021) [CVF 2021]

After his audacious directorial feature debut in 2018 with Tracey, fans of Hong Kong cinema have been patiently awaiting Jun Li’s sophomore outing. Fresh and talented voices in the industry aren’t necessarily packing the halls right now, and when a talent like Li emerges, it’s always something worth celebrating. With Drifting, Li certainly solidifies himself as a filmmaker worthy of excitement by creating an authentically bleak narrative about one of the most marginalized populations in Hong Kong. The film rarely misses a beat, and is sure to be satisfying to anyone yearning for honest and socially conscious storytelling.

Set in modern day Hong Kong, the film follows a group of wayward souls within the region’s homeless population. Fai (played masterfully by Francis Ng) is a homeless man at the center of attention after filing a complaint against the government’s forced eviction of the homeless den he resides in. His community of homeless neighbours, which includes Master (Tse Kwan Ho), Chan Mui (Loletta Lee), Dai Shing (Chu Pak Hong) and newly minted member Muk (Will Or), are aided by Ms. Ho (Cecilia Choi), a kindhearted social worker hoping to help these individuals achieve some degree of justice and compensation.

While watching Drifting, it’s hard not to be reminded about the films of Ann Hui, who Li has openly identified as one of his cinematic influences. A film like Drifting (and to a slightly lesser extent, Tracey) tackles important social issues with a creative lens that relies on grounded reality, rather than heavy-handed narrative devices that we’re used to seeing in most commercial films. Like Hui, Li still has the brilliance of creating a narrative that is inherently cinematic, while also embodying a sense of realism that compliments the fictional world the film embodies.

But Li obviously has his own unique voice as a filmmaker, and that shines through in his observational, yet calculated way of directing. There’s a sense of confidence in his stylistic choices, and he has a way of shaping emotional character arcs by watching carefully on the sidelines, while only leaning closer when it truly matters. He’s never overly intrusive, despite the film’s dense and emotional beats. This results in a natural depth of sentiments, as opposed to pure melodrama, which might have been a staple of the film under a less talented director’s watch.

I also dare say that the performances in Drifting are close to perfect, and it’s almost impossible to find any noticeable flaws in the film’s strong ensemble cast. Ng has always been one of the most versatile and unique actors working in Hong Kong, but it’s also been years since he’s had the opportunity to flex his thespian talents the way he does in Drifting. The actor is deliberate, yet unpredictable, in his performance as the film’s deeply flawed protagonist. Fans of his work will know that he has no problems turning the dial past one hundred, which would have worked for a character like Fai. But rather than turning the dial in any one direction, he teeters between tenderness and belligerence in a way that eschews empathy, and is hard to look away. It’s a marvel to watch, and a welcome reminder that with the right source material, no one can quite do it like Ng.

Rounding out the cast, it was an absolute delight to see Ho and Lee on screen in such memorable roles, and one would hope that this signals a slight resurgence in productivity for these veteran performers. The younger generation of actors in the film are also equally as impressive, and more than hold their own amongst the group of experienced performers. Choi and Or both give loud performances, in a quiet way that harkens a degree of maturity, particularly when the dramatic arcs for these characters are fully realized by the end of the film. And following his explosive performance in My Prince Edward (2019), Chu also demonstrates his ability to charm and excite, and will surely become a household name in the years to come.

To say that films about marginalized populations in Hong Kong are rare wouldn’t necessarily be true, but more grounded narratives of this nature are certainly hard to come by. With Drifting, Li has crafted one of the most affecting stories in Hong Kong cinema this year that is refreshingly honest in a warm, yet heartbreaking way. Like his contemporaries Chung Wong (Mad World, 2016) and Ray Yeung (Suk Suk, 2019), Li seems to be shepherding a socially conscious style of filmmaking that may signal a shift in direction for an industry that continues to shape shift during its times of uncertainly.

Although none of this was included in the film, it’s eerie knowing that Drifting was filmed during the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Knowing what we know now about what those protests represented, and the barrage of creative and journalistic censorship that has since flooded the region, will filmmakers still be able to make brutally honest stories like this? This is surely a question that anyone who values Hong Kong cinema – and cinema in general – is constantly thinking about. We won’t know the answer anytime soon, but with talented filmmakers like Li at the helm of Hong Kong’s next wave of cinema, I have faith that they will somehow find a way.

Drifting is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on July 15.