Septet: A Messy, Ambitious Reflection of Hong Kong

Five years ago, before protests, before national security and before Covid, director, producer, and Milkyway Image founder Johnnie To decided he wanted to create a symphony of stories for Hong Kong. The idea was to round up some of the Hong Kong film industry’s most revered filmmakers, embrace their distinct styles and voices, and compose a collective portrait of the city during each decade from the 1950s to beyond the 2020s. “Each segment would be a special melody imprinted with the director’s feelings for Hong Kong,” said the press kit.

Originally titled Eight & a Half, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong has been a long time coming. It was slated for a release after festival screenings in Busan and Tokyo in 2020, and at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2021. It languished through most of that year, then was confronted head-on by the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2022. 

Now, after much delay, home audiences will finally get a look at the curious collection in Septet when it opens on July 28. If there’s a knock on the film, it’s that it’s a celebration of the past – and of past filmmakers. But that was admittedly To’s point: it’s a film. “As Hong Kong directors are enjoying more opportunities in mainland China, the awareness for ‘Hong Kong movies’ seems to have waned over the years. I still remember when we used to shoot movies on film,” says To in a statement. “As the era of film is coming to an end, I invited my fellow directors to shoot on film once again to capture the spirit of that beautiful era.”

Many of the filmmakers contributing to Septet redefined local cinema in the 1980s. Patrick Tam and Ann Hui essentially kicked off the Hong Kong New Wave, which gave rise to young filmmakers emboldened by international educations who made Hong Kong (still a manufacturing centre at the time) and its movies cool, such as Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, or who reimagined the city’s traditional film form—martial arts—for modern audiences. Sammo Hung is every bit the influence Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee were, and Yuen Wo-ping’s work demanded attention from Hollywood: The Matrix’s action dynamics would, famously, be nowhere without his choreography. 

To asked the directors to focus on what was happening in Hong Kong during the decade they chose. “This would be the proof of Hong Kong’s history and existence. When I proposed the idea, everyone was keen and willing to participate,” says To. “I’m thrilled to have accomplished this project.”

With seven short films—the whole movie runs 110 minutes—Septet invariably falls victim to the curse of the anthology: it’s a hit and miss affair. But in many ways it’s also a great primer for peak Hong Kong cinema, both for buffs curious about what noted trailblazers are up to now, and for newcomers who may not realise a Hong Kong voice was ever loud.


Exercise by Sammo Hung

Septet starts with one of its best entries. Set in the 1950s, Sammo Hung’s “Exercise” mines Hung’s childhood as one of the Seven Little Fortunes who trained under Chinese opera master Yu Jim-yuen (other Fortunes include Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah). Written by Hung and Au Kin Yee (Hong Kong Film Award-winner Limbo, and Milkyway regular), “Exercise” stars Hung’s oldest son, Timmy Hung, as a stern instructor putting his students through their paces. 

“The master’s strict teaching methods will definitely break some laws if applied nowadays,” noted Hung. Pivoting on a couple of students trying their best to avoid the taxing training, it’s an anecdotal slice-of-life film with sunny images that illustrate a bygone era of discipline, whose value Hung wanted to encapsulate. “Kids like me did not like studying,” says Hung. “Our family wanted us to be good at something, so they sent us to learn kung fu or drama, with no idea how gruelling that would be. But if we had not been subjected to that kind of strict teaching, we would not have been where we are today.”


Headmaster by Ann Hui

Like Hung, Ann Hui’s “Headmaster” pivots on school life, always a major force in Hong Kong. Witten by Lou Shiu Wa, who wrote Hui’s The Way We Are, veteran actor Francis Ng (Men on the Dragon) plays the retired primary headmaster of the title, who ran a rooftop school in the 1960s, meeting up with some of his old students. He made the most of his limited resources, which includes a dedicated teacher played by Sire Ma. “Headmaster” is also an unrequited love story that demonstrates Hui’s singular lush, soft-focus vision of romantic longing. Anyone who’s seen Love After Love will instantly recognise Hui’s trademark restrained desire. “I chose this story because it shows how reserved people used to be regarding romance,” explained Hui. “Headmaster” is the most low-key entry in Septet, and shows off Hui’s career-long interest in the interpersonal. Its major flaw is its short length. Hui works best when her material has room to breathe.


Tender Is The Night by Patrick Tam

“Tender Is The Night” tells the poetical story of two young people falling in love in the 1980s, when mass emigration in anticipation of the 1997 handover was separating friends and families. Jennifer Yu (Tracey) and Ian Iskandar Gouw play lovers doomed by circumstance—her family is leaving town—in New Wave giant Patrick Tam’s (Nomad) first film since After This Our Exile in 2006. The subject matter is suddenly timely, what with quarantine restrictions currently disrupting many Hongkongers’ lives. 

“The mass migration wave at the time represents the difficult decisions Hong Kong people had to make about their future, as the handover loomed in the near future,” says Tam. “It was very emotional, so I came up with this story about leaving.” Unfortunately Tam’s entry is the one that falls flattest. Co-written with Melvin Luk, “Tender Is The Night” labours under its forced artistry (the lovers quote literature to each other) without ever saying anything about the inevitable loss distance will bring. Tam’s hallmarks are present and accounted for—youthful apathy, unfocused anxiety, the fragility of emotional bonds—but his elegant storytelling is not.


Homecoming by Yuen Wo-ping

The strongest entry is Yuen Wo-ping’s 1990s set “Homecoming.” Little Fortune Yuen Wah stars as an elderly man living alone, whose very hip granddaughter (Ashley Lam) moves in with him after she comes back to Hong Kong from university in Canada. He’s as old fashioned as she is modern, and the generation gap looks like it’s going to be a source of friction, but it winds up being a source of strength and foundation of a deeper bond between the two. Also written with Au Kin Yee, Yuen captures the splintered 1990s, when many who’d left in the 1980s returned, and the effort by those who stayed to catch up with well-travelled family. 

Yuen has directed few films without a healthy dose of martial arts in them (he made a splash with Chan’s 1978 breakout Drunken Master), and indeed Wah’s kung fu moves don’t overly impress the young woman. But Yuen paints their genuinely sweet budding connection in simple strokes, illustrating the family bedrock Hong Kong society is built on. “There will often be misunderstandings among family members, but at the end of the day, the love is genuine. Families are there for each other with no ulterior motive,” says Yuen.


Bonanza by Johnny To

In “Bonanza,” To puts on his director’s cap and returns to Hong Kong’s nearly obsessive focus on money, something he and co-writers Au (again) and Yau Nai-hoi explored in 2011’s Life Without Principle. Ng Wing-sze, Wu Tsz-tung (Elisa’s Day) and Eric Tsui play three young Hongkongers fixated on getting rich, fast, and blinded by the endless financial schemes flooding the city. To once again explores the human capacity for greed, coupling it with our tendency towards fear. It’s not To’s most insightful work, but it has his slick, urban polish and questioning tone. To manages to make his characters look reckless and unhealthily single-minded without judgement, and the short serves as something of an appetiser for the earlier feature Principle.


Astray by Ringo Lam

“Astray” is not Ringo Lam’s best film, but now it’s his swan song: Lam passed away shortly after completing his part of Septet at the end of 2018. Lam, a legend for defining crime dramas like City on Fire (which Quentin Tarantino famously cribbed from for his breakout Reservoir Dogs) and Full Alert, directs another veteran, Simon Yam, as a married man returning to his hometown for the New Year holiday and a bit of personal rediscovery. He wants to follow a path his father once took using an old photo, but time—it’s the 2000s—has made the city unrecognisable, and as is typical of Lam, the film ends on a bittersweet note. In some ways “Astray,” as scattershot as it is, reflects Lam’s own return to his brand of no-holds-barred storytelling, after years making B action films (Maximum Risk) with Jean-Claude Van Damme when the Belgian star started regularly working with Hong Kong directors (John Woo and Tsui Hark were others). By the time Lam tried to recapture the gritty, noir-style that made him famous, the industry had moved on.


Conversation in Depth by Tsui Hark

Septet ends on its strangest note, not really a surprise coming from Tsui Hark, best known for fantasy spectacles like The Legend of Zu and Detective Dee in addition to his landmark Once Upon a Time in China series. Set in the future, “Conversation in Depth” plays out in a psychiatric hospital, where four subjects pretend to be doctors and patients in an experiment. Needless to say, the subjects get in way too deep, and at one point the film takes a meta turn, not only asking us to question who we are at any given time, but putting cinematic “reality” itself on the spot. The segment is manic, noisy and muddled, and at the same time funny, ambitious and exemplary of Tsui’s brand of film—often as messily watchable (watchably messy?) as this. And of Septet.


Photo credit: Media Asia
Septet opens on July 28, 2022 in Hong Kong

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