Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (Hong Kong, 2019) [Focus Hong Kong 2021]

Leung Ming-kai and Kate Reilly’s four-vignette film presents differing aspects of and perspectives on Hong Kong lives, from the very personal and insular to the public, political, and expansive, and in that order, too. In “Forbidden City,” an elderly woman and her care worker embark on an unlikely trip, while “Toy Stories” are about two brothers and their conversation in a family-owned toy store. The other two vignettes consider a wider scope of interacting experiences: “Yuen Yeung” presents two teachers getting to know each other through the very specific thread of food and “it’s gonna be fun” — the sole documentary portion of the film — features Sham Shui Po activist Jessica Lam Sin-tung running for political office. The overarching result and portrait? A city teeming with stories and experiences waiting to be told, in both fiction and documentary trappings, and always with a sliver of humour that helps to take the sting out of what would be an all too mundane, even maybe absurd, situation on its own.

In this way, the film can serve as a complement to the omnibus film Ten Years (2015). To be sure, Memories to Choke On does not possess any of the explicit polemical aspects of Ten Years and its five vignettes set in the future, all of which are cloaked with both the hardened steel of resistance and a sense of bleak fatalism. Moreover, Memories to Choke On is much more modest in scale and in its desire and attempt to represent an ever-changing Hong Kong. At the same time, such modesty in scale may render inconspicuous a potentially political lining to the film. For the desire to chart these changes — and, just as important, things as they are before changes take place — even on a micro-level, is palpable. This focus is in fact what unites and drives the film’s four stories, such that the film is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.

On the surface, “Forbidden City” is about an elderly yet lively Hong Kong woman, Lam Chi-yin (Leong Cheok-mei), who is intent on making a day-trip to attend a get-together with people from her home village in China and her Indonesian caregiver, Mia (Mia Mungil), just as intent to dissuade her from doing so, following what her employer (the woman’s son) has told her. But on a more nuanced level, though separated by age and ethnicity, these two women are invariably linked by experiences of migration. Yet the vignette never makes this detail explicit, which quietly swirls underneath the developing antics of Chi-yin and Mia trying to accomplish their respective goals regarding the day-trip, thereby leaving the spectator to piece it together instead. The aforementioned detail comes to mix with the antics, too, however, as Chi-yin’s memory is clearly not what it used to be and she repeats anecdotes of the past and recent present to Mia, who absorbs it all but also uses them to deepen their conversations in their tacit tug-of-war. In this regard, Mia unwittingly plays a role in the oral (and lived) history of migrations, which is gradually reciprocated by Chi-yin when she listens to Mia’s recounting of her own home village. Such parallel and reciprocity is echoed in the vignette’s symmetrical, or circular, form, bookended as it is with same shots of the neighbourhood in which Chi-yin lives and the street that she and Mia traverse.

Continuing on the theme of home and memory presented in symmetrical form, “Toy Stories” is a veritable trip down memory lane as two brothers (played by Zeno Koo and Lam Yiu-sing) visit the family toy store whose ownership is currently being negotiated with outside buyers. Given the use of toys as carriers of memories and cultural references and interaction, the film is at its most simple and gentle here, in keeping with the film’s overall modesty of scale and production, though no less effective in conveying wistfulness. Perhaps most striking about this vignette is the way it captures the sense of comfort that toys can provide — and by extension the space in which they are located or stored — especially in the face of change for the younger brother (Koo) specifically and in the wake of a comment about the neighbourhood consisting of only older citizens made by a family friend whose store the brothers first visit before continuing on to their mother’s store.

The same thing applies to “Yuen Yeung,” although this time the vehicle for wistfulness and comfort in the face of impending change is food instead of toys, and the location is not just one space but Hong Kong’s endless array of food (for example, chu cheung fan, salted egg french toast), drink (such as yuen yeung), and restaurants (including the “most romantic” KFC). And it presents the most complex form: the vignette follows fellow teachers, Hongkonger John (Gregory Wong) and American expatriate Ruth (Kate Reilly), and their journey of friendship-through-food in flashback structure, from the time they first meet in the school in front of vending machines to the present time. The present time, significantly, is a couple of weeks before Ruth moves to China, a detail that is at once throwaway and telling. In this context, the vignette’s title becomes equally so, but more specifically transitions from throwaway detail to telling when an anonymous voiceover at the end relates what the drink consists of and how it came to be in postwar colonial Hong Kong in the 1950s. It becomes most telling, indeed, when the point at which the voiceover begins to relate that yuen yeung “was declared part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage” is matched with footage of the Umbrella Movement.

This voiceover also acts as a fitting bridge between this vignette and the film’s last, the documentary “it’s not gonna be fun,” which centers on Lam waging her 2019 campaign in the local elections while sharing her feelings about life in general and her decision to engage in local politics more specifically. Though it may seem out of place, preceded as it is by three fiction shorts, “it’s not gonna be fun” is in fact not at all jarring. If anything, it crystallises the film’s overarching subtext of the politics of everyday experience in present-day Hong Kong that builds from “Forbidden City” to “Yuen Yeung” — not to mention the latent documentary realist aesthetic that operates in them — especially since Sham Shui Po is the poorest district of Hong Kong. “Everyday experience” is really the operative term here since Leung and Reilly balance rather evenly footage of Lam the political activist and Lam the everyday Hong Kong citizen, who is also a barista in her cafe. In truth, the most jarring or surprising element of the film is the sudden appearance of the voiceover in “Yuen Yeung.” But when paired with this vignette’s own conclusion in the form of intertitles following the election results, the voiceover becomes less unexpected and part of the film’s political lining that develops from story to story.

Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down is streaming as part of Focus Hong Kong from February 9-15.