by Howard Schumann
eagerly awaited as a new Terence Malick film, After This
Our Exile, the latest work by idiosyncratic Hong Kong
director Patrick Tam, more than lives up to expectations. Known as a
teacher of Wong Kar-Wai, Tam presents his first feature in seventeen
years, a compelling and moving film about the complex interaction between
an irresponsible father and his loyal and devoted son who would do anything
for him, even steal. Winner of major Hong Kong awards as well as Taiwan’s
Golden Horse Award for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting
Actor, the film carries on the gritty tradition of the Hong Kong New
Wave of the 70s and 80s while defying patriarchal genre conventions
and probing greater emotional depths than much of the mainstream cinema
of our time.
Set in Malaysia
but spoken in Cantonese, the picture uses flashbacks, crosscutting,
and ellipsis to tell a riveting and often melodramatic story. After
Lee Yuk-lin (Charlie Yeung) walks out on her abusive husband Sheng (Chow
Cheung-sheng), a compulsive gambler, their nine-year old son Boy (Gouw
Ian Iskandar) runs to his father’s place of work to tell him of
her escape. The overwrought Sheng drags Lin home and physically and
verbally abuses her, but eventually shows his loving, almost childlike
side and they end up having sex.
Boy on a cruise, Sheng returns to discover than Lin has left again,
this time with another man, and father and son are left to struggle
alone. Sheng has lost his job, owes gambling debts, and Boy is without
the money to pay the bus driver to go to school. Forced to move to a
seedy small town hotel, Sheng is driven to pimping a girl (Kelly Lin)
to make money, but their life soon begins to spiral further downward.
Sheng teaches Boy to sneak into people’s home to steal jewelry,
but the child is caught and sent to a detention center in a sequence
that leads to a startling and unexpected conclusion.
This Our Exile sounds depressing and there are some truly heartbreaking
moments, the film has touches of kindness and humanity that are enhanced
by the caliber of the acting and the rich cinematography of Ping Bin-lee.
Iskandar, also known as Ng King-to, is sympathetic and moving as the
appealing but not cloying child who loves his dad but is slow to realize
how he is guiding him into self-destructive behavior. Pop singer Aaron
Kwok gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the deadbeat husband
who manages to evoke sympathy as a suffering human being in spite of
his failings. We know that Sheng is doing what he does because he loves
his son, never grasping the extent to which he has endangered the boy
until a furious coda suggests that pain heals very slowly and sometimes
not at all.
to the Buddhist tradition, because the world is subject to impermanence,
to live is to suffer. To overcome suffering, it is said, we must steer
a middle course between self-indulgence and complete withdrawal and
not add to the suffering by indulging in remorse, regret, guilt, or
shame. In Secret Sunshine, the latest work
by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, Oasis),
events happen suddenly to a young piano teacher who endures two staggering
losses and attempts to deal with them in ways that do not alleviate
from a novella called “The Story of Insects” by Lee Chung-joon,
the film stars Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae, a widowed mother who moves to
the town of Miryang from Seoul with her young son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob)
after the accidental death of her husband. When her car breaks down
on the highway, she is assisted by Jong-chan, played by popular Korean
actor Song-Kang-ho (The
Host). Song offers a touch of lightness to the otherwise
heavy-going story, playing an over-eager auto mechanic who pursues a
romantic relationship with Shin-ae to comic effect.
sets out to ingratiate herself with the people in Miryang, but the results
are mixed. She warmly greets a shopkeeper but offends by suggesting
that her store is in dire need of brightening up and she would be the
perfect person to assist in the redecorating. Boastful of her wealth,
she negotiates to buy land but it turns out to be pretense. After another
traumatic event occurs in her life (brought about partially by her own
negligence), she turns to the local Christian evangelical community
and claims she is now at peace and has found God.
the film is not about religion, it spends a good deal of time portraying
evangelical Christians in a positive manner, showing examples of their
emotional appeal to those in distress and depicting scenes in church
that display authentic religious feeling. It is soon obvious, however,
that Shin-ae’s religious conviction is more of an escape mechanism
than a genuine conversion experience and she is quick to denounce the
teachings as lies after an ironically disturbing visit to a prison inmate.
Secret Sunshine is a powerful film, both complex
and honest in its natural rhythms and brilliantly performed by the lead
actors, yet Shin-ae’s loss of emotional grounding becomes overly
insistent and melodramatic towards the end in spite of a superb performance
by Jeon who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.
©2008 Howard Schumann