Handover Syndrome is a phenomenon wherein critics, mostly Western critics, read into every Hong Kong movie produced in the period between the Joint Declaration in 1984, when it was announced that the colony would be returned to the Mainland, and 1997, when the Handing Over took place, some kind of statement about the, often very real, anxiety over that process and the future it promised. We’re in a similar place right now, as ever since the crackdown on the mass protests of 2019-2020, seemingly every Hong Kong movie, and every Chinese movie made by Hongkongers working within the Mainland system, can be read as a statement on the relationship between the two entities. Partially, that’s just the nature of film: it’s easy to manufacture a political reading of just about any movie, and Western critics tend to know very little about Hong Kong and Chinese politics, so their reading tends to be about the One Thing they do know (the colony was handed over to China; the police cracked down on demonstrators). But just because a reading is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. A lot of Hong Kong films made between 1984 and 1997 are about anxiety over the Handover. And a lot of present-day Hong Kong films are about anxiety over Hong Kong’s increasing integration into the PRC system. Many of these take a sidelong approach to the subject, evoking nostalgia for Hong Kong as it used to be. A Light Never Goes Out is just such a film.
On its surface, this is a straight-forward narrative about the dying art of neon sign-making, about the transformation of Hong Kong from a chaotic mass of colors and lights and people into a sleek modern city of chrome and glass. It doesn’t take much imagination though to read this as a story of life under the PRC. Where once was a laissez-faire paradise where art flourished alongside and within even the most garish of commercial interests, there is now a tamed, structured metropolis, indistinguishable from any other major city in the world, ruled by the interests of organized capital and the State. The sign-makers’ art is almost dead because it has been legislated away: no more massive marquees hanging over the sidewalk (they are dangerous), the signs evolving (devolving) from incandescent neon to computerized LEDs (not unlike the move from 35mm film to digital cinema) because they’re cheaper and easier to mass produce. There’s no room in the film for counter-argument: that LED signs can be art just as well; that neon too was once the new technology replacing an older, more humane one, such as sign-painting (the commercial art practiced for 40-plus years by my father-in-law, incidentally). This is one clue as to the film’s true purpose: there’s no room here for nuance, for the long view of history, or for reasoned consideration of the other side. This is nostalgia with a purpose: are we on the side of light, or are we on the side of grayness.
One key to the modern Hong Kong nostalgia film is the use of older stars, and A Light Never Goes Out has two of the best in Sylvia Chang and Simon Yam. Chang plays Mei-hsiang, Bill’s (Yam) widow, mourning her husband’s death and remembering him in flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. She and his former apprentice, played by young actor Henick Chou (who also appears at this year’s NYAFF in Vital Signs), spend most of the movie trying to first figure out and then fulfill what was the sign-maker’s dying wish: to recreate one of his past signs that had since been torn down. In the process, this film touches on a number of issues: the grief of a woman who has lost her husband (Chang won the Best Actress Golden Horse award for her performance); the disconnect between the older generation and the younger, embodied in the fraught relationship that Mei-hsiang has with her exasperated daughter, played by Cecilia Choi, who is on the verge of emigrating to Australia; the difficulty of making a living and affording housing in contemporary Hong Kong (the apprentice, a high school dropout, is squatting in Bill’s old workshop); and the process of making neon signs: drawing designs, bending glass, making light. But mostly, this is a movie about how the past is disappearing all around us, and the beautiful things we’re losing because of that. Director Anastasia Tsang, making her feature debut, uses, as interludes, archival footage of old Hong Kong, the vibrant neon signs hanging over the busy streets seemingly embodying the life of the city. These fade into shots of the same streets as they appear today, with all the life drained away from them. And over the final credits, she introduces us to a number of still-living sign-makers, with images of their work and information on when it was destroyed. Commercial art is, by its nature, compromised and ephemeral. Hong Kong is no different: always corrupt, always changing. Tsang’s polemical nostalgia gives us an idealized view of that past, and someone to blame for the degraded present: told that the old neon signs are no longer possible because of all the new laws that have been adopted regarding construction and public spaces, Chang’s character shouts “Your new laws are illegal!” A sentiment that could have come from any student demonstrator over the past decade.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2023.