Credit: NYAFF/Vital Signs
by Sean Gilman Featured Film

Vital Signs — Cheuk Wan-chi [NYAFF ’23 Review]

July 25, 2023

Cheuk Wan-chi is an accomplished director, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian in Hong Kong. She co-wrote Sylvia Chang’s excellent 2004 film 20 30 40 and Pang Ho-cheung’s not-as-good 2007 one Exodus. As an actress, she starred as one of the doomed minibus passengers in Fruit Chan’s apocalyptic 2014 masterpiece The Midnight After. That same year, she also wrote and directed the delightful real estate comedy Temporary Family, with Sammi Cheng, Nick Cheung, and the once-ubiquitous Angelababy. She’s finally followed that up with Vital Signs, her first feature in nine years. But it seems the last decade of events in Hong Kong has sobered Cheuk up. Vital Signs shows none of the comic flair of her earlier work, and is, in fact, a downright dour melodrama about a widower EMT (the always-ubiquitous Louis Koo) who’s trying to emigrate to Canada with his adorable moppet daughter while also dealing with an ambitious young colleague on track to get promoted ahead of him. It presents a sad vision of present-day Hong Kong, where all the energy is devoted to either climbing the bureaucratic ladder for no reason other than that it’s there or simply toward getting as far away from the former colony as one can.

Koo is, as usual, terrific in the lead role; he’s always been charming, but there’s a weariness to his performance here befitting his age, unlike his action-hero work in last year’s sci-fi epic Warriors of Future. A remarkably consistent thread through all Koo’s work has been the disintegration of his body: in film after film, the former model suffers an endless array of ailments, maimings, and other physical misfortunes. Koo, like Hong Kong itself, is always falling apart, and Vital Signs is no exception. Here, he plays Ma, who’s plagued by a bad back caused by a form of spondylitis that, without the surgery he can’t afford, limits his ability to do his job and diminishes his chances of being approved for emigration. Ma is a simple, competent man: all he wants to do is save people’s lives and hang out with his daughter, but events far outside his control are conspiring to prevent him from doing either. The parallels to life in a city scarred by a decade of political instability, recurring pandemics, and a net population loss are unmistakable.

This being a Hong Kong movie, there are, of course, action scenes. They’re of the EMT rescue variety, but by the standards of films like Dante Lam’s recent The Rescue (2020) or even a run-of-the-mill episode of ER, they are pretty tame and uninvolving. Koo’s Ma saves people with his calm, clear-headedness, and then moves on to the next rescue. His partner Wong Wai, played by Neo Yau Hawk-Sau (Ten Years, No. 1 Chung Ying Street), is a new variation on the strivers we’ve seen in many a Hong Kong film over the years (often played by Michael Wong or a Michael Wong-Type). Obsessed with advancement, he’s shot up the EMT ranks in record time, his goal only to achieve the kind of desk job that Ma, devoted to the work of rescuing people, has always eschewed. Working with Ma, though, humanizes him, as does a budding relationship with Ma’s cousin-in-law, Miffy, a foul-mouthed nurse played by Angela Yuen (Chili Laugh Story, The Narrow Road). Yeun brings the most spark of any of the performers, but even the young people’s relationship, which should be a source of hope for the future, is premised on the fact that neither of them wants children (though they both adore Ma’s moppet). Vital Signs sees no future in Hong Kong, just the slow dissolution of the past and a resigned hanging on in the present.

Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2023.