It’s rare for a Hong Kong film to deal with social issues and ills in a respectful and mature way. Hong Kong movies have never truly come to terms with mental illness, learning disabilities and rape, which are often seen as fodder for comic relief – though to be fair, all cinemas are guilty of marginalising and belittling serious subject matter. It’s just that Hong Kong, for all its aspirations to be “Asia’s World City,” hasn’t quite managed to get a modern, progressive handle on these issues. Hong Kong has yet to produce its Melancholia, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Left Foot, or Elle – just to name a few groundbreaking examples from overseas.
But every so often someone here breaks the mould. The most recent case is first time filmmaker Wong Chun with his sensitively observed Mad World. Starring Love Off the Cuff’s Shawn Yue and comic veteran Eric Tsang as a father and son dealing with the son’s bipolar disorder, Mad World is also one of the first films to come from the Hong Kong Film Development Council’s Film Development Fund’s first features initiative. With a slight budget of HK$2 million, Wong and regular collaborator Florence Chan (who also wrote the screenplays for Wong’s short films) have done something few thought possible: they’ve made a strong film (eight Hong Kong Film Awards nominations and two Golden Horse Awards) with public arts funding.
The story starts with Wong (Eric Tsang) picking up his son from a hospital. Wong is one of those typically distant absentee fathers the cinema loves so dearly, so you might expect a maudlin reunion with estranged children. That’s not going to happen here. His son Tung (Shawn Yue) is getting out of a psychiatric care facility after a few months treating his bipolar disorder. Wong’s wife and Tung’s mother (Elaine Jin) are dead, and her passing is a source of significant strain between the two men. A year earlier, Tung caused her death and Wong has blamed him for it ever since. But there’s far more to the story than filial neglect and guilt, and it is a powder keg of anger and resentment that will explode eventually.
Adding to the burden of reconnecting, Tung is compelled to deal with the irrational rage of his former fiancée (Charmaine Fong), as well as a raft of problems recognisable to too many Hongkongers: cramped living quarters, dreadful housing for the poor, stigma attached to mental health and most other “abnormalities” (autism, depression), cruelty rooted in ignorance rather than malice, and unreasonable work pressures and financial demands.
Most of the action unfolds in the pair’s crowded, subdivided flat, an almost palpable feeling intensified by Zhang Ying’s claustrophobic cinematography. The tight spaces are a perfect reflection of the characters’ own mental confines, be it Tung’s struggle to reintegrate, Wong’s bafflement, the neighbours’ misplaced fear, or the health care system’s draconian disinterest. Wong and Chan have crammed a lot of heady themes into the film, any of which could have been sufficient to form a second thread. But kudos to the young filmmakers for tackling themes too often brushed off as “uncommercial.” Fortunately, they’re also blessed with two stellar and revelatory performances, one a surprise and one from an unlikely source.
Yue has proved to be a charming enough pretty boy over the course of his career. He’s turned in fine work as cops (Infernal Affairs), gangsters (Jiang Hu), heroic types (As the Light Goes Out) and most prominently he’s won over audiences as the flawed but reluctantly sincere Jimmy in Pang Ho-cheung’s romantic Love trilogy. But here he displays a level or restraint and nuance not previously demonstrated — perhaps never demanded — that is remarkable. Keeping up with him is Tsang, known best as the loud, garrulous relief, comic or otherwise, in everything from acclaimed drama (Fu Bo, Aberdeen) to lowbrow sex farces (the guy has 278 credits on HKMDB). Tsang is tremendously empathetic as a man struggling to accept his son and his illness even though he doesn’t really get it. He never tips over into histrionics (which would be so easy to do) and really provides the emotional backbone of the film.
Mad World is far from perfect — it’s a first film, and it shows sometimes, particularly in Fong’s overwrought and misguided zealot and an overabundance of flashbacks — but against a cinema landscape dominated by crass comedy, genre gore and PRC-approved historical epics, it’s a breath of fresh, humanitarian, locally voiced air.