Writer-director Amos Why isn’t expecting the kind of slow burn success for his latest film, Everyphone Everywhere, that he had with his last, Far Far Away. Nor does he expect to rack up its HK$11 million in receipts.
“We’ve done a few screenings so far and I can’t get a handle on what the response is, on how people are taking it,” he says. “It’s been slow – and subdued. Social media’s been silent, which is weird. I don’t know if [audiences] don’t know how to express what they think or if they’re afraid to. It’s totally different than the response to Far Far Away. None of us quite knows what to think.”
The head scratching started in April, when Everyphone had its world premiere in Udine at the Far East Film Festival. Why is a favourite in Udine, but he admitted the more intensely Hong Kong-focused story, aesthetic, and jaundiced eye thrown towards mobile tech threw viewers there for a bit of a loop. Still, the screening was nearly full, and advance ticketing for its release at home is already showing full houses at Golden Scene Cinema.
Titled in Chinese as (roughly) “all the world has phones” (cyun4 go3 sai3 gaai3 dou1 jau5 din6 waa6 全個世界都有電話), Everyphone Everywhere is Why’s fourth feature, and it very much marks his evolution as a filmmaker. His 2014 debut, Dot 2 Dot, was a modest romantic drama that watched a mainland teacher and a Hong Kong designer slowly circle each other thanks to a mysterious series of dots that ultimately reveal the city’s rich history. He followed that up with Napping Kid (2018), which broadened Why’s thematic and genre scope to zero in on generational disconnects in Hong Kong, the rise of dodgy digital finance and the wealth gap. He also embraced his first true ensemble cast. In Far Far Away (2021) he returned to romance, but exploited the city as a character for the first time. Everyphone Everywhere incorporates all those elements for the first time. It’s arguably Why’s most accomplished film, and one that demonstrates how much control he has on his material.
“Really? You really think so?” responds Why when we share that assessment. He seems surprised, but finally admits yes, it’s probably his best work so far. But he adds a caveat: “I still have plenty of room to improve. I could grow much more.”
Everyphone Everywhere’s ambitious story pivots on the sometimes invasive technology that’s become a part of daily life and a popular bugbear for filmmakers these days. “I always wanted to make a film about phones. About smartphones. They’re a very complicated thing,” says Why. “They exhaust me but I can’t live without one. Who can now? It’s a dilemma and I wanted to take a look at this monster.” He pauses, considering the loaded nature of the smartphone’s traceability and the sheer penetration levels that mean many of us live fully exposed lives – and what that can mean in the SAR. “This is for Hongkongers, but it’s very universal. Everyone is getting tracked everywhere in the world. There is no hiding anymore. I wanted to touch on all those elements of smartphone culture.”
Setting the film at the 25th anniversary of handover was intentional, and adds another thread in a story examining how our behaviour has changed since the smartphone became standard. The seeds of the story grew from Why leaving his phone at home one day. “[It] made me realise these phones make us forget things – addresses, phone numbers, the time. At one time you said 2pm in Causeway Bay and you were there. Not ‘around 2’ and ‘figure it out later.’”
Smartphones make work too easy – much of it unpaid. Do any of us know anyone who doesn’t take work calls at 8pm and on weekends because we’re so easy to reach? “All tech like this has a good and bad side, and there are few solutions to the negatives,” says Why. He isn’t a luddite, but Everyphone argues they can be too useful, particularly in this age of rising digital surveillance that we’ve tacitly consented to. “One of the issues that comes from smartphones is that they’re too easy, and we’ve become reliant on them. In the so-called analogue era we had to be able to multi-task and engage our minds. Ironically in many ways they’re created more work, and have made life more demanding. And they keep improving – and we don’t.”
In the film, Why and co-writers Frankie Chung Wang-kit and Kong Yu-sing weave together a trio of stories that end with former classmates meeting for lunch at a private kitchen. Twenty-five years earlier, in the summer following graduation in 1997, the three friends invested in their first mobile phones, and promised to meet up again in 2022.
The first, Chung Chit (Endy Chow Kwok-yin, The Sunny Side of the Street), is a designer living on Cheung Chau who forgets his phone one morning in a rush to catch a ferry. Naturally he can’t recall the name or address of the restaurant or anyone’s phone numbers, which leads to several awkward conversations with his wife, Ivy (Cecilia Choi). Elsewhere, Raymond So (Peter Chan Charm-man, Mad Fate), a shady real estate agent with plans to emigrate with his daughter Yanki (Amy Tang Lai-Ying), has his phone hacked, which causes no end of stress at the prospect of his dirty laundry being discovered. Lastly, Ana Lee (Rosa Maria Velasco) waits for them both at the restaurant, and passes the time connecting with a WhatsApp scam artist who fills her in on some very personal, very crushing information.
While Ana waits, Chit tries desperately to find out where within an industrial estate he needs to be, and Raymond tries to “fix” his phone. Meanwhile, Yanki is pulling off her own scam with a lonely introvert (Henick Chou Hon-ning, A Light Never Goes Out). The threads intertwine in surprising and enlightening ways, and leave the core three a little wiser than before lunch. One of the pleasures of Everyphone Everywhere is in never knowing where Why is leading us, and finding a little of ourselves in Chit, Raymond, and Ana.
Shot in eight days in June 2022, Everyphone also represents a formal leap for Why. The film brings together all the parts that go towards screen storytelling and is Why’ most technically accomplished film. Once again he makes the most of Hong Kong’s urban spaces with help from returning cinematographer Leung Ming-kai (Suk Suk), but also of its urban soundscape. Drummer and theatre sound designer Chung Chak-ming’s second film job (the first was Far Far Away) colours outside Hong Kong cinema lines, according to Why.
“We synced in a lot of ways; he had a lot of fresh ideas,” he says. “Hong Kong cinema sound is very clean, and delineated. You can hear the music clearly, and the dialogue clearly, but it’s not real. Hong Kong is very noisy, but not in films. We wanted to recreate that noisy environment. We didn’t want the film to sound like a Hong Kong movie. We wanted it to sound like Hong Kong.”
To that end, two scenes stand out: Chit’s increasingly frantic hunt for his lunch spot in a Kwun Tong industrial estate and a close quarters argument between Raymond and Yanki, as well as one between their neighbours, that caps the film. The rackety ambience of Kwun Tong, the clanging of rolling cargo doors and passing buses adds another layer of frustration to Chit’s personal saga, and mirrors the rising tension in the phone calls with his wife (those are thanks to a helpful security guard). And Raymond and Yanki’s fight is something almost all Hongkongers have experienced. “Almost every family in Hong Kong will get into a fight like this, almost every night. I wanted to use sound design tell that story.”
In his typical lean and efficient way, Why is already planning to shoot his next film — about food, so probably a surefire hit — in October. With filmmakers like Pang Ho-cheung (Missbehavior) and Norris Wong (My Prince Edward) leaving the city, it seems as if Why is one of the few, if not only, true Hong Kong voices left in the industry – although that’s something he disputes. “Of course not! I’m 52, and there are plenty of young filmmakers in the next generation coming up behind me,” he says. “They’ll have an impact and this is a very interesting period of time. When you look at who’s in charge in the cinema right now, they came up in the 1980s. They’ve been here for 40 years. They’re coming to a natural conclusion, and we’re ready for a change.”
Everyphone Everywhere opens August 17.