The White Girl is set in a world that is at once familiar and distant. The film opens with scenes of mangrove swamps and stilt houses, which you might recognise as Tai O – except this is Pearl Village, “Hong Kong’s last fishing village.” It’s a community on the precipice of major change. The old way of life is dying, but what the future has in store can hardly be called life: the corrupt village chief is hatching a secret plan with mainland developers to bulldoze the swamp and turn the village into a tourist destination.
It’s against this backdrop that the film’s three main characters cross paths. The White Girl (Angela Yuen) lives with her father in a stilt house. Because she is allergic to the sun, her skin is ghostly pale and she is shunned by her classmates and neighbours, who see her wraith-like appearance as a bad omen.
Her only escape from this dreary life is the sea cave she visits in the evenings, brooding next to a churning sea. That’s where she meets Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri), a Japanese loner who had recently taken up residence in an abandoned villa in the hills above the village. “Everyone says this place in haunted,” she tells him when she visits the house. “So that makes me a ghost?” he asks.
Sakamoto, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with a street kid named Ho Zai (Jeff Yiu), who lives with a mute Buddhist monk who builds Rube Goldberg machines in the yard next to his temple. Ho Zai is plucky and industrious, and he is the eyes and ears of the village, which is how he uncovers the village chief’s fiendish plot. Together, the three find a kind of solace in the villa.
The White Girl is a film about the space between people, but it’s also an allegory for Hong Kong, a city as precarious and vulnerable as a house built on stilts. “The urgency of it comes out of what’s happened in the last three years,” says Jenny Suen, who co-directed the film with renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Suen’s last movie was 2015’s Hong Kong Trilogy, a whimsical triptych she produced for Doyle. “That was like a side project,” she says. Their real focus over the past five years has been The White Girl, which is loosely based on a short story Suen wrote about love in a fishing village. When she shared it with Doyle, he thought it would make a great movie – and Suen should direct it.
They ended up working on the project together as co-directors and co-writers. “I never wanted to be a director but I knew I had something to say,” says Suen. She remembers growing up near the Tai Tam fishing village. “There were fishermen there, the grannies would be out washing their clothes by the sea. It was a real living place,” she says. “And when I came back I realised that place was gone.”
Suen describes the film as a homecoming of sorts. She left Hong Kong when she was 18 to study film in the United States, and she ended up working in Hollywood. “Nothing moved me there,” she says. So she came home in 2010, and as Hong Kong was embroiled in the political turmoil of CY Leung’s administration and the Umbrella Revolution, she began to question the nature of belonging in a city that has often been described as a “borrowed place on borrowed time.”
At first, that phrase referred to the impending handover from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But it still applies to the uncertain ground Hong Kong occupies under a political and economic system that is set to expire in 2047. Suen says this is reflected in how The White Girl’s main characters relate to the ruined villa. “All three of them make it their home, but it’s not really theirs,” she says.
Don’t get the impression that this is an overtly political film, though. All of this is subtext, except for the subplot about the village chief. In fact, the film’s dialogue is sparse, and its languorous pace and lush visuals invite quiet contemplation more than anything else. “It’s a film about looking and understanding,” says Suen. “There isn’t much dialogue. There isn’t much of a script. It’s more of a structure.”
Suen says film appeals to her precisely because it is a visual medium. Although she was raised in a Cantonese-speaking home, she attended an English-language international school. “I grew up kind of unmoored and feeling like I live in a translated world – sometimes badly translated,” she says. “For me, film is a language – a visual language. And it’s a language that takes you to another world.”
The White Girl opens December 14, 2017. Click here for more information.