Movie Review: Besieged City

Movie Review: Besieged City

If you’re a fan of the “gutter-trawling” alienated youths genre of film, you should find this one enjoyable: and I did not intend to be ironic there because I actually think this was a good film. The story centers around two brothers: the younger one gets relentlessly and heartlessly picked on at school–beaten up, all the time, by boys and girls (the latter, despite their nice skirts and uniforms, are basically triads-in-training–like many mobsters, they like stuffing heads in urinals and toilets). The older brother sees this and does nothing. It gets worse: the younger one is physically abused by his father at home, and again, the older one does nothing. With no one to protect and stand up for him, the younger brother disappears.

He’s not heard from again until the police tell the elder brother that his brother is in the hospital after an attempted suicide, and is also the main suspect in the homicide of a girl affiliated with a young triad boss/mobster. The older brother soon finds himself entangled with these triad members, who say his younger brother made off with a huge stash of drugs. He then tries to piece together what exactly his younger brother had been up to during the last few years.

What he finds out is that his brother has become part of the seamy underbelly of New Territories housing development. These are outsiders and misfits, the kids that slip through the cracks of the system. And of course, to make ends meet they resort to stealing and selling drugs.

I always feel conflicted about movies like this: the inherent seriousness of the subject seems somehow at odds with the often stylized camera work and pacing. The highly saturated, bold, and contrasty cinematography reminds me of Infernal Affairs (無間道)where you see a lot of these cyan-green tinted shots. Of course, it’s more than just eye-candy: what you’re getting is not the objective fly-in-the-wall take on what happens, but some reflection of the subjective reality of the characters. I don’t want to suggest that the style is amateurish or bad, just not necessarily what one might expect of a film that touches on some very serious issues. My proclivity for neo-realism, documentary-style movies a la the Dardennes Brothers is what I am getting at, but I suppose it’s not a big deal. I’ve just found this type of style has become idiomatic in Hong Kong and reminds one of those Hollywood films that also deal with people on the wrong side of the tracks or the bad side of town: to a certain extent, you have to deal in cliches. You don’t explore the complexity of parental abuse, or why kids beat up other kids.

I suppose that much of it has to do with the fact that so much of what happens in this film is alien to me. Hong Kong–you’re thinking banks and dim sum, wine bars and electronics shops. The harbor, the peak. You don’t think about father-daughter incest, much less expect to see (dimly), a father humping a daughter and getting her pregnant. Here the heart and mind begin to part ways: your mind is telling you that yes, all these things do exist, but this film is like a potluck roast of all the bad shit that happens in life, and cramming all of it together makes the suspension of disbelief a wee bit harder. On the other hand, your heart is trying to feel sympathy for the characters and revulsion for all the cruelty that you see. That’s why realistic, naturalistic performances and style tend to work better for me: they start off by looking more “real” (or write) and tend to shy away from overdramatizing.

The film has a few plot twists and turns, which I think makes the film much better than it might be were it to rely purely on the “moods” and portrayals of everyday life for teenage dropouts. With regards to the latter: the naturalistic performances by the actors really did make those moments shine–all the times they stole things, and made fun of each other, got high, fought, and then made up. These dropouts are a motley bunch and for the most part, they all looked it–none of the made-up pretty-boys and Canto-pop queens that dominate most Hong Kong films. I am guessing that they used many non-actors, and perhaps some of them are even from that area of Hong Kong.

All in all: one of the more interesting films and directors (劉國昌) out of Hong Kong these days. I’ve heard that the director’s other films are quite interesting as well and am keen on filling what seems like an inexcusable gap in my Hong Kong film repertoire.

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