Far, Far Away: A New Kind of Hong Kong Rom-Com

Yes, director Amos Why succumbed like many filmmakers around the world and made a co-called Covid movie, joining the ranks of Doug Liman’s Locked Down, Rob Savage’s Host, Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, to name a few. But unlike his peers who leaned into horror, isolation fears, or apocalyptic visions of societal collapse, Why opted to go for light, fluffy and, most of all, celebratory. In many ways, Why’s third feature film, Far Far Away, is a love letter to Hong Kong hoisted onto the framework of a rom-com. 

A spiritual cousin to Why’s 2014 debut, Dot 2 Dot, in which Moses Chan and Meng Ting-yi took a Before Sunrise-type meandering tour of the city, exploring its distinct history and identity, Far Far Away literally tracks a twentysomething IT nerd through a series of romantic misadventures spanning roughly a year. The “tracking” part comes from the fact that the various objects of his affection live in the farthest flung corners of the city, and the kilometres traversed are detailed on an app. In Why’s hands, Hong Kong looks enormous.

“People who live on the islands tend to head to the ferry pier at the last minute. So you see a lot of lovers holding on to the very last minute, they wait right to the bell,” says Why, tucking into a noodle dish in a Jordan café in the week leading up to Far’s release. “Teresa [Kwong, Why’s producer and wife] and I always joke about how if you’re really serious about someone, usually the girl, see her all the way home to Cheung Chau,” he chuckles. “That distance can be an issue. So what if I multiply it by five. That’s the start of the story.”

Far Far Away started shooting in December 2020, months after Why quit his job at the Open University of Hong Kong (now the Hong Kong Metropolitan University). “I didn’t want to teach film production online. How do you do that?” he scoffs. He developed his idea into a script, wrangled a crew of fewer than 30 and, following in the footsteps of Johnnie To (who shot The Mission in about two weeks), Christopher Nolan (Memento in 23 days) and Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (25 for Moonlight) knocked out Far Far Away in 12 days. Covid aside, Why enjoyed the process. “I think this is the future, at least the foreseeable future. Fewer people, less equipment, smaller cameras, less lighting. That’s the way to go.”

The result is a rambling, picaresque picture of modern dating with the guy—not the girl—as the frazzled love seeker for a change. Far Far Away could have been just another rom-com, but Why doesn’t talk down to his character, and he avoids the traps of the form; there’s no mad dash to the ferry pier. 

Perennial supporting actor Kaki Sham (Distinction, My Prince Edward) stars as Hau, an awkward, painfully shy app designer living in Cha Kwo Ling, who finds himself the unlikely object of affection of five radically different women. Sham, who Why worked with in 2018 on Napping Kid, was always the first choice, because of his approachable, regular-guy demeanour, who Hongkongers have also seen grow up on screen. Sham’s first role was in Heiward Mak’s realist coming-of-age drama High Noon in 2008 when he was 18. Since then he’s demonstrated a growing range, low-key charm and sense of humour that makes him instantly recognisable. 

“He’s not tall, he’s not handsome. It’s why I cast him. He’s very ordinary,” says Why. “My costume designer’s [Ivy Chan] idea was to make him as invisible as possible. We didn’t need to give him any colour. He drives the story so he didn’t need to stand out.” Hau’s character isn’t based on anyone specific – and he’s not Why. “He’s indecisive, quiet, shy, and slow. That’s totally not me. I’m not quiet, and I’ve been told I act too quickly on a lot of things,” says Why with a knowing smirk.

The five women, however, are amalgams of female friends. Why ran the final script past Kwong to make sure they rang true. Why was adamant about creating women that reflected modern Hong Kong. “Most movies here still write women like it’s the 1980s or something. If they want to do that, that’s their business, but I wanted to do something else. The key for me was, if someone leaving the film couldn’t tell the difference among the five women, that’s a disaster. They needed to be distinct.”

They are. They’re also at the mercy of their own personalities and worldviews that ultimately teach Hau a thing or two about himself. He begins his romantic search with a colleague, A Lee (Cecilia So, Napping Kid), whom he believed lived in Prince Edward. He offers to give her a ride home one night and finds out he has to go 40 kilometres to Shau Tau Kok. He also believes there’s a tiny spark between them, and is confused when she vanishes from work. 

Next up is Fleur (one-time Hotcha pop star Crystal Cheung, Dot 2 Dot), who lives in Ha Pak Lai, across the bay from Shenzhen. Fleur, a cousin of Hau’s friend Tai-tung (Will Or), is looking for a husband simply because she wants children – and she doesn’t want to wait much longer. She’s too often the butt of a joke, but “Fleur demonstrates, by contrast, how immature and indecisive Hau is,” says Why. “He doesn’t know what he wants and he’s slow to act. Fleur is the opposite. She knows her choice is odd, but she doesn’t care what other people think of her choices.”

Third is Tai O resident Mena (Rachel Leung, Somewhere Beyond the Mist), who is the easiest character to hate, and by rom-com standards the character to be punished for her confidence. They meet at the ferry pier car park, and when she notices they have the same car, Mena marches right up to Hau to introduce herself. She’s the kind of person who braces for opportunity at every turn; you never know who you might meet in a carpark. “A lot of people have a problem with her,” comments Why of early reactions to her. “She’s basically the villain,” says Why. “You need a bad guy, and between her and Lisa, in script structure, they bring Hau to his so-called low point. But I don’t think she’s bad, per se. She and Hau have different value systems in terms of money. And that’s not bad, or wrong.”

Lisa (Hanna Chan, G Affairs, Elisa’s Day) is a hippy-ish artist living in an out-of-the-way village in Mui Tsz Lam, as well as an old high school crush. Hau devotes two full days to her, hiking out to her isolated New Territories house, where he winds up reckoning with his own insecurity. Finally, it’s the irreverent, no-nonsense Melanie (Jennifer Yu, Septet) from Cheung Chau who steps in for A Lee at Hau’s studio, that Hau connects with. The actors are old friends who floated the idea of a rom-com for them to Why more than once, and the duo has a natural chemistry and easy dynamic that makes Melanie and Hau’s unlikely romance believable. 

Far Far Away is modest in every sense of the word, but its modesty obscures how much thought has gone into writing the five women, some of the best, most resonant to grace screens in Hong Kong in many years. Leung stands out for giving what could be an archetype nuance, even if Why takes the easy way out by softening Mena up with some tears when things go south with Hau. Having her stay true to her convictions and without regret would have been a welcome change of pace in a genre that demands obedience to its rules. 

None of that is to say Why has lost the critical touch he brought to Napping Kid. Anyone who cares to look, will find all sorts of social commentary—like A Lee’s relocation away from Prince Edward, which can be inferred to be a result of poor health due to tear gas exposure – the distances Hau travels in pursuit of love speak directly to Hong Kong’s persistent housing issues and the influence that exerts on thousands of people, often Hau’s age. 

But Far Far Away turns its attention on the city’s beauty and distinct personality too. Hau’s app notifications will be familiar to anyone with a phone plan, he revels in Hong Kong by foot, and cinematographer Leung Ming-kai’s camera captures the essence of each district—and the women who live there—with a low-key grace that belies the film’s budget. Throw in a soundtrack stacked with local favourites like Mansonvibes, Manson Cheung, USB, Room 307, R.O.O.T, and Harbor Homme and you’ve got film by Hongkongers, for Hongkongers that will do as much for tourism as any official agency. 

Naturally, a few of Why’s investors resisted Sham’s casting, hoping for a more conventional, box office-friendly leading man, but that ultimately would have defeated Far Far Away’s goal of being relatable. Why admits to shopping the role to some other actors to appease them, but always circled back to Sham. “And now everyone’s happy,” he finishes with a shrug. “That’s always the way.”

Photos: Courtesy of Golden Scene

Far Far Away opens August 4, 2022.

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