Following their first film collaboration Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous (2015), famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and producer-director Jenny Suen Ming-lei resume their working relationship with The White Girl, only this time Doyle and Suen share directorial and screenwriting credits. Not surprisingly, the two films are in many ways complementary to each other, especially in the blending of documentary and fiction and above all the emphasis on the spatiolocal.
Defying any easy classification, The White Girl possesses an aspect of an essay ﬁlm, especially since an actual plot does not necessarily thicken until the last third of the film – and along with it a particular sociopolitical position. Up to that point, the film is content with getting to know various characters through which to see ‘Hong Kong’s last fishing village,’ Pearl Village. Consequently, it is nearly ethnographic in its representation of the local spaces that shape people’s lives and sense of self and community, experiences, and interactions. Those willing to explore the village and its small population along with the film will discover a unique perspective of the extremely local, as in intimately tied to a geographical space. Through the film’s accumulation of sights/sites in the course of its running time, the most memorable and even moving aspect of the film are the different textures of local space and uses of and attribution of changing meanings to them by the different characters, genuinely evocative in itself so that the plot involving a Japanese stranger in the village ends up being wearisome, if not laughable, and thus difficult to overcome.
The opening sequences already establish the film’s focus on the spaces that make up the village, while also introducing its main characters: the young woman who is known only as the ‘white girl’ (Angela Yuen Lai-lam) and Ho Zai (Jeff Yiu Hok-chi), whom she calls ‘oyster boy’ as he goes about opening large oysters in search of pearls and she looks on. In between moments their interactions are shots of beautiful serene waters by day and the village built around the edges of the harbour by night, with the ‘white girl’ in voiceover expressing the uncertainty of tomorrow. In essayistic fashion, her voiceover begins over an archival clip of a man navigating a sampan over those same waters a long time ago and continues over footage of the village in her time.
Time, in fact, underwrites the film’s focus on the spatiolocality of Pearl Village. The sheer absence of advanced technologies such as cell phones or even television sets prompts one to think that the film may actually be set in the past. With the arrival of Sakamoto (played by Japanese actor Joe Odagiri), the presence of the past becomes even more palpable. In a wordless first appearance, Sakamoto walks up to a rundown house perched up high vis-à-vis the rest of the village, and whose gates denote that it is government-owned. He passes through anyway and proceeds to explore every region of the house with the intention of settling in, despite its worn-down, abandoned appearance and lack of furnishings. Apparently sealing his decision to make the place his (temporary) abode is the discovery of a periscope that provides views of Pearl Village and some of its inhabitants.
Accordingly, the film shifts between Sakamoto incarnating an outsider perspective and the ‘white girl’ and Ho Zai’s respective daily experiences representing the local one, thereby presenting different sociocultural angles of the village. The ‘white girl,’ who lives with her fisherman father in a stilt house, cuts an eccentric and removed figure for the locals; so nicknamed because she strictly follows sun protection practices, following her father’s overprotective orders. Ho Zai appears to be more connected to the community, as he peddles mosquito repellent coils throughout the village and has a spunky spirit, alongside the Buddhist father(-figure) with whom he lives in a makeshift Rube Goldberg space in another part of the village. Yet all three characters, the film comes to reveal, are not so different from each other.
As compelling as this premise is, the film’s handling of it and the three aforementioned characters coming to know each other misfires completely. Upon meeting Sakamato, Ho Zai and the ‘white girl’ gradually find a shared social misﬁtness and ease with him. Subsequently, the government-owned historical ruin that Sakamoto is occupying for his lodging becomes a safe haven and escape from humdrum village life, especially for the ‘white girl.’ But the film makes it difficult to remain invested in what happens to them, individually and collectively. For instance, the titular character is belatedly drawn at best. Sakamoto is even less so, as his arrival/presence in the village is neither addressed nor elaborated; to call him a character gives the film too much credit. Moreover, as Sakamoto, Odagiri simply does not have the magnetic quality of, say, Tadanobu Asano to pull off the mysteriously seductive and charming terseness that the figure is supposed to possess. (This last point also brings up a film that Doyle had worked on previously and presents a similar scenario of a Japanese man, played by Asano, in a foreign city encountering locals, Last Life in the Universe (2003) by Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang, which further exposes The White Girl’s uneven, unfinished narrative seams.) To her credit, as the titular character, Yuen is quite captivating and expressive.
As the running time winds down, it is as if the film finally realises it needs to do something with its characters and embryonic story. And so it tries to pack in as many stories/metaphors as possible about the identity/status of Hong Kong, particularly in relation to China: through the ‘white girl’ and Sakamoto’s affinity against the backdrop of the ruin; through the ‘white girl’ and her confrontation with her father about absent mother; and finally through the historical ruin in the face of the village chief collaborating with mainlanders to give Pearl Village a commercialised luxury seaside facelift unbeknownst to the community. Not to say that any of these scenarios is uninteresting. On the contrary, they point to the village as an archive of stories that should be represented. But not all at once.