All is Not Well in This Family LGBTQ+ Drama

The peculiar nuances and moral questionability of Hong Kong inheritance law may not seem like the stuff of cinema, but contrary to all logic, director Ray Yeung Yiu-hoi has managed to make it so. The last time we saw Yeung was back in 2019, ahead of the release of Suk Suk, and just before the film got buried by pandemic-related shifting release dates. At the time, Yeung said his next film would probably pivot on LGBTQ+ issues, because it’s the world he knows. “It takes three or four years to make a film so I have to really believe in the project in order to do it,” he said at the time. “And of course you want to do things close to your heart.”

Right on time to open the 48th Hong Kong International Film Festival is All Shall Be Well (從今以後). It’s a family drama about a woman, Angie (Patra Au Ka-man, The Narrow Road), trying to hold on to the home she shared with Pat (veteran Maggie Li Lin-lin), her partner of 30 years, as well as a little dignity, after she suddenly passes away. Unmarried and lacking any kind of documentation to validate her relationship with Pat — like a will — Angie has to navigate traditions and laws that don’t recognise her spousal rights, as well as reconcile the idea that the family she naively thought she could rely on is not on her side.Yeung was inspired to make the movie by a talk on LGBTQ+ inheritance rights in Hong Kong he attended years ago. It got him to thinking about law, tradition and culture and how those factors line up in opposition to LGBTQ+ families, so the production of All Shall Be Well started with interviewing as many people as he could find with similar experiences.

“One woman I interviewed told me about how after her partner passed away, the very next day her partner’s family was asking where all her watches were. They used the excuse of ‘Oh, well, you know, we want her to wear the best watch for the funeral.’ Then they started taking her possessions back. And that’s the first step,” says Yeung, noting that it’s not unusual for older couples that run businesses together and own homes together in Hong Kong to delegate one to handle banking and legal matters. It’s easier, but it can be trouble down the road. “It’s not like [one] didn’t support the other, or didn’t put in an effort, but it was never on paper. So it looks like they made no contribution at all, and so it’s a very frustrating and painful experience. And morally it’s not even right.”

A lot has happened since Yeung attended that talk and started working on a script. Angus Leung and Scott Adams won a landmark victory in 2019 that allowed them to take advantage of tax benefits as same-sex spouses, and last year the Court of Appeal affirmed Henry Li’s same-sex marriage and inheritance rights. Nonetheless, Li’s case is still in the system, which makes All Shall Be Well as timely as it is tragic. That timeliness may be one of the reasons the film walked off with a Teddy Award from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival, beating out higher profile titles such as Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo from Germany, Filipino director Ryan Machado’s Fin, Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding, starring Kristen Stewart, and LGBTQ+ filmmaking pioneer Bruce LaBruce’s The Visitor.

All Shall Be Well starts with a quiet, long take, the scene unfolding on what is likely an average morning. Angie and Pat are moving around their kitchen, making tea and getting breakfast with the comfortable ease of two people who’ve been carrying out this routine for years – decades, even. Cinematographer Leung Ming-kai’s warm images set the tone, making viewers feel the bond between Angie and Pat as much as making see it when they go to the market and the florist to get ready for Mid-Autumn Festival. 

They’re a comfortable senior-aged couple with no kids in a roomy flat, so Angie and Pat host Pat’s family for the holiday: Pat’s older brother Shing (Tai Bo, who won a Hong Kong Film Award for his performance in Suk Suk) and his wife Mei (Hui Siu-ying); their son Victor and his girlfriend Kitty (In Broad Daylight’s Leung Chun-hang and Rachel Leung Yung-ting), and their daughter Fanny and her husband Sum (Anita’s Fish Liew and Lai Chai-ming). As Angie is cleaning up following the boisterous and comfortable holiday meal, Pat unexpectedly dies. Yeung doesn’t linger on the moment; it’s never shown. There’s no frantic ambulance call. She just vanishes, and the gap feels cavernous.

It becomes clear Angie’s status as the popular aunt is meaningless in the wake of Pat’s death. Under the law, without a will, Angie has no right to remain in her home, and no right to ensure Pat’s final wishes are honoured. She loses her ally in Victor and Mei is allowed to trump fairness with superstitions. A great deal of the colour drains from Leung’s images too. 

As clear as Yeung makes Angie’s frustration, and as thoughtlessly and insensitively as the family often behaves, they’re not painted simply as monsters, clawing over each other to get ahold of a nice flat. Yeung and Leung illustrate the family dynamics with little details: the broken-down exhaust fan in a flat Victor considers renting is a familiar sight to anyone who’s gone hunting for an affordable apartment; the cramped, sweaty quarters Sum shares with his family has a tactile claustrophobia to it; Shing and Mei are still in public housing nearing retirement. 

The ability to make us empathise with the family is one of All Shall Be Well’s strengths. Without it, the movie would fall apart. In a standout passage, Angie catches Shing visiting the columbarium where Pat is interred. Thinking he’s alone, he allows himself to mourn his sister. To this point Shing has been in almost accidental agreement with Mei’s aggressive demands that the estate be passed to blood relatives, and he hasn’t really had a chance to grieve his sister. The sequence also raises questions about gender and masculinity. 

“Pat was the one who earned more money, and she was the one calling the shots [in the family]. So in my backstory for Shing he always felt that he was in her shadow,” says Yeung. “All that builds up, she suddenly passes away, and now he’s the man of the family. There’s pressure in having to live up to this image. Shing is regarded as a failure because he wasn’t able to provide what he felt he should be providing to his wife and his children. Victor wants to get married, but he’s not able to be independent and buy or rent an apartment for his girlfriend. And Sum isn’t even able to perform sexually because of the pressure of his living situation. And that happens. When you’re in a tiny apartment with your kids, after a few years, what romance is there? So I wanted to explore that a little bit; being men in this patriarchal society, that can be very castrating.”

Yeung admits writing his first female protagonist was a challenge, which is why he relied on his interviewees, as well as friends in the LGBTQ+ community. When he got it wrong, they let him know. “Originally, Angie was very alone. I thought because she was very close to the family members and had no close friends when Pat passed away, she didn’t really have a lot of people to rely on. But when I spoke to a lot of the women, they pointed out that when lesbians of that age group — in their 60s — came out 30 or 40 years ago, to be unmarried and living with a woman you needed to have a lot of courage. And you would also have a very close support network. It would be very unrealistic for her to be on her own. So I rewrote the script to include [her] group of friends.”

None of that would matter, of course, if Au and Li weren’t as convincing as Angie and Pat. Fortunately the two actors do career best work while giving a universal face to the issue. Au makes you feel Angie’s barely concealed rage is inextricably linked to the hopelessness of her position. And similar to Yeung handing veteran Tai room to stretch after a long career, he combed through hundreds of hours of 1970s and 80s TVB dramas to find Li.

“Although she was trapped in traditional female characters she brought a kind of freshness and modernity to those roles. I thought she came across as quite independent,” Yeung says of Li. “For her it was something she’d never been offered, and not someone’s mother or grandmother. She said at her age roles like that don’t come easily.”

Some might ask why Yeung simply didn’t make the central couple two men, but with the family element so key to the story, it had to be women. As Yeung finishes, women partners are still less threatening than men, and at their age would be more quickly accepted by the family. “So it looks like they’ve been embraced, but it can change so quickly. That homophobia is always there, just covered up with this politeness.”

All Shall Be Well opens in cinemas on May 1, 2024.

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