Credit: SDAFF
by Sam C. Mac Film

Septet: The Story of Hong Kong — Various Directors [SDAFF ’22 Review]

November 17, 2022

The subtitle for Septet: The Story of Hong Kong isn’t an all that accurate reflection of the omnibus’s breadth: These seven short films do span a robust 70 years, from the 1950s (Sammo Hung’s Exercise) to the 2020s (Tsui Hark’s Conversation in Depth), but since nearly all of them play with flashbacks and nonlinear structures, there’s license to dwell in certain time periods rather than others, and it’s clear where this particular group of Hong Kong auteurs’ hearts lie. Every director attached to the project was born between 1945 (martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) and 1955 (both Johnnie To and Ringo Lam), so they’re roughly of the same generation, and they all treat Septet unabashedly as a nostalgia object — their contributions, taken together, don’t so much render a historical narrative of Hong Kong as they do a very particular cinematographic image of it, one heavily reliant on familiarity with their oeuvres.

To be fair, the Chinese title of Septet translates to “Band of Seven,” a much more appropriate (read: less universalizing) way of branding this anthology. And it’s frequently easy to enjoy and appreciate Septet on these terms — as a love-letter to a golden age of Hong Kong cinema that this group of filmmakers basically architected. Never is this more the case than during Patrick Tam’s contribution, Tender Is the Night, his first directorial credit in 16 years. Refreshingly straightforward and impeccably directed, Tam’s short is the story of two bookish lovers who meet in the Hong Kong of the “late 1980s” and not long after have to cope with parting when the girl’s parents decide to move to the U.K. (one of several allusions/references throughout Septet to the migration of many elites in Hong Kong in the decade prior to the handover). So what if certain passages feel like lesser recreations of moments from Tam’s New Wave classics, like Nomad (1982) and Love Massacre (1981), complete with bright, solid-colored apartment walls and David Bowie posters adorning them? Just as those ‘80s films used their romantic melodramas as representational of a complicated national mood, Tender Is the Night lends itself to a reading of Hong Kong that — like the two lovers’ fleeting relationship — is an ideal forever out of reach, a place and time supplanted by competing influences from China and the West.

A number of the other shorts here scan as more conservative capitulations to an idea of Hong Kong that mainland Chinese censorship can comfortably condone, which is a big problem facing HK cinema more broadly right now. (If you’re wondering why we never got Johnnie To’s Election 3…) At the end of Ringo Lam’s Astray, a father’s ashes are sprinkled into the water by his widow and his adult son. The son asks his mother, “Wouldn’t it be better to bring him back to the U.K.?” to which mom responds, tearfully, “He loved Hong Kong.” It’s far from the only time here that the Septet auteurs’ more eccentric and distinctive directorial voices (the first part of Astray does contain some interesting commentary about changes to the Hong Kong cityscape) ultimately get sublimated into the same type of maudlin nationalist messaging familiar from recent mainland omnibuses like My People, My Country (2019) and My Country, My Parents (2021). That said, a weirder short like Tsui Hark’s Conversation in Depth doesn’t really fare much better, using a tired “mental hospital” set-up for a punchline about the reversed roles of a patient and his psychiatrist, and then trying for a bit of comical self-awareness by pulling back to reveal Tsui himself engaged in a debate with another one of Septet’s filmmakers, Ann Hui, about how “deep” what they just watched was (“It’s trying to be stylish,” Hui quips disapprovingly).

Hui, for her part, contributes one of the weakest of the seven shorts here, furthering a dispiriting trend for one of Hong Kong’s most important and accomplished filmmakers after her recent, fatally inert Eileen Chang adaptation, Love After Love (2020). Headmaster as well relies on a romantic relationship lacking in any real chemistry; in fact, it’s barely perceptible in the short’s first half, set in a primary school in the 1960s. This unrequited love becomes the fulcrum of Headmaster’s drama when the narrative jumps ahead 40 years, to find the titular headmaster now a feeble old man, who discovers that the younger teacher he once quietly pined for has passed away from some bogus Chinese medicine. The headmaster’s adult students help locate the teacher’s grave, culminating in a sweet but ultimately unearned emotional send-off. Likewise, Johnnie To’s Bonanza feels like work that’s way beneath him — an unnecessary retread of his much superior Life Without Principle (2011), paring down that film’s trifold plot to just the stock speculation stuff in the form of a handful of scenes of young people, over the course of about a decade, mulling buying into the market, with intertitles providing exposition about the crisis and other notable, extreme vacillations in Hong Kong’s economy since the 1997 handover.

That just leaves Sammo Hung’s Exercise, which opens Septet on a buoyant note, and Yuen Woo-ping’s Homecoming, one of the more narratively dynamic shorts among the seven. Hung’s film functions as a brief autobiographical vignette, with a slightly fudged timeline (it ostensibly follows his training as a youth in the China Drama Academy, which Hung enrolled at in 1961 when he was 9 years old, but the short is actually set in the 1950s). Exercise is a loving ode to the grace and hard work of great choreography and the athleticism of Beijing Opera in particular; most of it is made up of scenes of the talented children’s cast showing off their impressive moves. There’s an added bit of resonance in having Hung’s son, Timmy Hung, play the sifu for most of the short, until a final shot of the elder sifu swaps Sammo himself into the role. Homecoming, whose first section is set in 1997, is a two-hander between legendary Hong Kong action star Yuen Wah (also a member of the same Beijing Opera youth troupe as Hung and Jackie Chan, so in a sense he’s in Septet twice), playing an aging martial arts expert and lifelong fan of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and a granddaughter who has to live with him for a short time in order to take her college entrance exams, before she can join her parents and immigrate to Canada. It’s a typical odd-couple pairing, but with some nice grace notes (the recurring role of a McDonald’s hamburger) and a fun scene of Yuen beating up mouthy kids.

At its best, Setpet summons the romantic and oddball aura of one of the most beloved eras in international cinema, Hong Kong or otherwise, by allowing itself to be a compendium of unabashed audio-visual fetishes: Planes constantly flying much too low over Kowloon City (before the new Chek Lap Kok airport was built in 1998), Cantopop songs emanating from bedroom cassette decks, and cameras that move with such agency it’s like they’re a character unto themselves. What you won’t get from Septet, despite a handful of the generation-spanning storylines bleeding into near-present-day periods, is an engagement with the urgent political realities that face today’s Hong Kong. Neither should you expect work that approaches anything like the best that these seven auteurs have made in the past — though whether that’s primarily due to the daunting oversight of Hong Kong’s film industry right now or a general waning of the talents of the Hong Kong New Wave’s great filmmakers is harder to say.

Published as part of SDAFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.