Sunday, September 21, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] The Orphan (Ren Hai Gu Hong)

As a fan of Bruce Lee, I've seen his landmark movies countless of times, from The Big Boss right up until Game of Death. However, he's appeared in non martial arts roles before, and I wouldn’t have missed the festival’s screening of The Orphan for the world, being projected in 35mm glory from the Hong Kong Film Archives, though with some colour correction irregularities that had the film sitting in a lab for 30 years. But that’s another story altogether.

The first few minutes already got my interest piqued, not because my idol had appeared, but for its documentary value in seeing Hong Kong in the 60s, fronted by an almost unrecognizable harbour front. Outdoor shots though were few and far between throughout the movie, and for a 60s movie like the locally made Lion City, one chief reason besides nostalgia, is to gawk at how advanced a city has progressed through the lens of a movie camera. I thought something of value here, which I wasn’t aware, was how even Dragon Dance has evolved – it wasn’t as if the entire dragon piece was stitched together in one seamless fabric, but was rather quite fragmented, with sections of the head to the body connected by rope, looking as if it was a really nasty and mean looking creature with protruding skeletal structure. Interesting.

The story wasn’t something to shout about, largely centered upon a director of an orphanage school, Ho Si-Kei (played by Ng Cho-fan, who also wrote the story), who had lost his family during the war, where the daughter and wife perished from a collapsing wall, and the son and nanny disappeared, whereabouts unknown. While he may have lost his family, in return he got a new one through his care of the many orphans in the school.

It’s not that difficult to see that the film was intended to address some of society’s ills and indifference, especially to youth and youth crimes. There was lengthy discourse between characters about what affluent society should do to attempt to arrest the root of juvenile delinquency, and of society at large shirking responsibility in the pursuit of wealth. The wealthy, though stereotyped, get to be put on the spot, and probably reflected what the working class’s perception of their unwillingness to lend a hand. In fact, they don’t really redeem themselves even in the end, probably largely reflecting on their reliance on the good Samaritans to do what is right, and to combat juvenile crime single handedly.

That got personified through Ho Si-Kei, and at times you can feel his loneliness at such an uphill battle. He got brushed aside by wealthy families who probably alluded his presence to asking for donations, he has difficulty in trying to attract and retain teaching staff – it isn’t easy trying to teach and inspire wayward youths – and actually becomes the sole decision maker in the running of the school, as if lacking administrators. In all, a one man show, and for someone who prides himself at teaching and obtaining results, the last act has him in shock when a surprising discovery turns out to be sort of a slap in the face for all he stood for.

Besides a short sub-plot about possible romance between him and a fellow teacher, the star of the show is undoubtedly Bruce Lee as Ah Sam, a petty thief fashioned after Oliver Twist, whose inclination for thievery stemmed from a need to belong to a larger family, where he’s doing not so bad in terms of hierarchy (No 3 in the gang). And you’d have a chance to discover that he’s quite the dancer too with his mean cha-cha moves, linked to delinquent lifestyles to be frowned upon at that era.

While he’s usually stoic and a man of few words in his more renowned movies, here he’s got plenty to talk about in presenting himself as a street corner gangster, and it’s really rare to see him being really loose with his mouth where swear words fly, and I don’t really recall his lighting up of cigarettes in those movies too. There were two sides of his character here, the filial one in front of his nanny, and the real, confused him when out there in the real world.

Given storytelling techniques of the past not being too refined or subtle (the music usually lets the cat out of the bag), you would just know the big important secret when both Ah Sam and Director Ho cross paths. Although the final act might seem a little messy and hastily reconciled, the fun factor in the movie still belongs to Bruce Lee in a role that is not often seen by contemporary fans of his, and for that, like the other movies in his filmography, should be seen more widely when opportunity presents itself again.

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