Given the current, extremely complicated relationship between Hong Kong and China, it’s perhaps surprising that Choy Ji’s film (his debut feature) Borrowed Time made it past mainland censors. Granted, no one is going to confuse the movie for a political tract; instead, this delicate memory piece moves in opaque ways, implying rather than stating. Perhaps the linking of a familial schism with contemporary politics is entirely incidental. Choy isn’t saying, but it’s hard to overlook the inference.
Eschewing typical narrative momentum, Borrowed Time is very much an attempt at a certain kind of poeticized reverie. In other words, there isn’t much plot to synopsize; Mak Yuen-ting (Lin Dongping) is preparing to get married to Ngai (Sunny Sun), a well-to-do man from a wealthy family. Yuen-ting’s mother, Chau-kuen (Pan Jie), is embarrassed to attend the wedding without Yuen-ting’s father, who left them in Guangzhou some 30 years earlier and fled to Hong Kong after racking up thousands of dollars in debt. Further, it’s revealed that he has an entirely different family in Hong Kong. Chau-kuen declares that she will not go to the wedding without the father there, and so Yuen-ting sets off to find him and implores him to return with her. All of this information is disseminated in one long conversation between mother and daughter; otherwise, Choy and cinematographer Shuli Huang are preoccupied with turning the city into a series of emptied-out liminal spaces, moving isolated bodies through Edward Hopper-like compositions. It’s slowly, methodically paced, the film’s rhythms seemingly attuned to non-professional actress Lin’s attenuated performance.
Eventually, Yuen-ting makes the journey across the bay, as we follow her travels from boat ride to quarantine hotel (the film was shot during Covid lockdowns). Later, she reconnects with childhood friend Yuseng (Eddy Au-yeung), who seems to remember more about their past than she does. Interspersed throughout the film is a recurring motif: a mix CD with a hand-scribbled label that acts as a kind of totem. It’s a potent symbol, and Yuen-ting and Yuseng bond over the resurfacing of their shared history. It’s all very calm and lovely, perhaps too much so. Cinema is an ideal delivery method for a certain kind of ennui; Antonioni perfected wandering through cities in a fugue state, while Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (amongst others) updated the idea for the 21st century. Choy doesn’t do much to add to or differentiate himself from these signposts, instead making a fairly simple dichotomy between the colder, more austere mainland and the livelier (if still claustrophobic) Hong Kong locations. There’s little effort to give Yuen-ting any sort of psychological interiority; a brief scene shows that she works for a debt collection agency, the same sort that would’ve hounded her mother and father in the past. But the linkage is never mentioned again, and the idea that capitalism could have driven a wedge into the family isn’t explored, either. The film offers one breathtaking sequence, suggesting Choy’s talents lay less in narrative cinema than in experimental sights and sounds. Yuseng is an anthropologist of some sort, and toward the end of the film, Choy introduces a fascinating formal and narrative rupture, superimposing nature footage over the walls of Yuseng’s apartment. It has the effect of removing Yuen-ting and Yuseng from one world and transporting them into another. It’s rapturous, a magic-realist interlude of sorts that approaches the transcendent. Borrowed Time is a fine enough debut effort on the whole, but it’s this concluding scene that shows a path forward for this young filmmaker.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 3.