Friday, October 1, 2010

Endless Tragedy, Endless Tears: Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow

Sandra Ng and Simon Yam as the long suffering parents in Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow.
 Although I was in Hong Kong earlier this year when Alex Law's Echoes of the Rainbow debuted at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I was too busy catching films I thought would be tricky to see on the mainland to make an effort to see it. The film garnered good reviews, however, and even helped inspire talk of a Hong Kong film industry revival. A few weeks ago I finally laid my hands on a DVD copy and gave it a spin.

Anyone familiar with Chinese melodramas will know how weepy they can be – even today watching pretty women cry on screen seems to be a national obsession. As a tribute to the even wetter Hong Kong melodramas of the 1950s and 60s, Echoes of the Rainbow is suitably awash with sniffles and tragedy.

It's easy to be cynical about unselfconscious melodrama and I'm guessing this film wouldn't appeal to many in the West. I've developed something of a soft spot for these weepies if they're done well and I'm in the right mood  – perhaps I've been in China too long, or I'm maybe I'm just getting old. My wife has also been away for a few weeks, so that's also probably got something to do with it.

Anyway, Echoes has all the classic elements of Chinese melodrama – poor long suffering parents, an evil parasitic foreigner, injustice, natural disasters, illness and death. No wonder they cry a lot. Despite all the tragedy, in many ways this is unashamed nostalgia – if not for the hardships of the 1960s then at least for a certain kind cinema of the era. Law makes no attempt to play with or update the genre, as Wong Karwai did with In the Mood for Love and 2046 – Echoes is all tears, soft focus close-ups and the over-the-top heartstring-pulling music that kicks in about every two minutes.

Unless you're an aficionado of Chinese melodrama the most interesting aspect of the film is its depiction of family life in the poorer neighbourhoods of Hong Kong half a century ago. Given Hong Kong's image these days as China's most advanced city, I was surprised by the extent to which life there in the 1960s – at least as it is depicted in the film – resembled contemporary life on the Chinese mainland, complete with corrupt cops, inadequate housing, a lack of social services and a massive wealth gap. Most striking was the appalling lack of adequate medical care for ordinary Chinese. The scenes of nurses demanding payment for essential procedures as one of the characters lay dying brought back painful memories of my wife's experiences in a Beijing hospital a few years back. Given how far Hong Kong has come in the last few decades I suppose it provides hope for the mainland.

Aarif Lee and the gorgeous Evelyn Choi as the young and ultimately doomed young lovers in Echoes of the Rainbow.
Although I enjoyed Echoes of the Rainbow, I found both this and Crossing Hennessy – the other key “revival” film lauded at this year's Hong Kong Film Festival – to be pretty lightweight. Neither represented anything new in terms of subject matter or style, and in fact both films deliberately hark back to the more anodyne end of the classic Hong Kong cinema of yesteryear. Which is fine in itself – it's just a little disappointing that these middle-of-the-road films have been held up as proof of life in an industry once renowned for its diversity and risk-taking.

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