Tin Shui Wai. The City of Sadness. Towering housing projects rising like deadly spikes have replaced old fish ponds in the 1990s. And along with the Hong Kong workers that relocated to the city for the promise of jobs that never materialized due to poor city planning, come the continuing reports of unemployment, suicides, and gang wars among others.
The Way We Are, in contrast to whatever you may have read about Tin Shui Wai, is devastatingly boring.
The film revolves around the quiet, robotic lives of Mrs. Cheung (Bau Hei-Jing) and her teenage son Ka-On (Juno Leung). Ann Hui's steady eye sharply captures the daily routine of the mother as she works in the supermarket unpacking, weighing and packing durian fruits, then coming home to cook dinner and read the newspaper afterwards. The daily grind, routine upon routine, but without melodrama or even a hint of manipulated emotion. Since Mrs. Cheung only knows work (she has been working since 12 years old), there is no hatred over their status, which I was expecting.
At its heart, The Way We Are defies expectations by being involving in its objective simplicity. When Mrs. Cheung meets a new neighbor, an old lady who cooks, waits for the day to become night, then cooks again, the kindness Mrs. Cheung shows evolves from politeness to concern as their lives fall into a syncopated working-class rhythm.
There's an overwhelming feeling that something will go wrong but nothing ever does, and not in the way you expect it. Ka-On, who seems at the start to be lazy and useless, is simply just a good kid. Now, he's about to drug deal, no, he's about to bash some Christian kid's face in, hmm, maybe later. And the one dramatic high point, the one where the screaming and sobbing should be exploding, was dealt with humming subtlety: two friends on a bus silently weeping.
Hui once in awhile cuts the narrative to pictures of old Hong Kong. The way they were, with just a hint of nostalgia. People in Tin Shui Wai don't have the luxury of reminiscing, by choice it seems like it. It's just the way they are.
I've been so used to watching Johnnie To films shot in Hong Kong that the experience of watching The Way We Are was both unsettling and refreshing. The documentary-drama is naked of pretensions and surefooted in its narrative. I keep going back to that Juliana Hatfield lyric which perfectly captures the film's afterglow: Nothing's good and nothing's bad. Everything's just kind of sad. ****
Region 0 NTSC, DVD. HK$ 85 in HMV.