Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hong Kong From the Bottom of a Glass – Freddie Wong's The Drunkard

Freddie Wong's debut The Drunkard, seen at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The image of the dissolute artist pursuing a bohemian lifestyle and resisting the allure of the market may not have much credence in today's rampantly commercialised culture. But if the novel The Drunkard is anything to go by, the tension between art and commerce was very real for Shanghai-born novelist Liu Yichang. His autobiographical stream-of-consciousness work tells the story of a writer living in the squalor of early 60s Hong Kong, balancing serious literary ambitions with the need to write pulp fiction and soft porn to earn a living. For not the first time a local director has produced a screen adaptation of Liu's book, which appeared at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The new film shares the title of the novel and is directed by critic-turned-director Freddie Wong. It was the Wong Kai-wai-esque publicity image above that initially caught my eye in the Hong Kong festival program – and then made me think twice about seeing the film when I realised 2046 was based on the same source material. That film's prequel, In the Mood for Love, was also based on a Liu Yichang piece, the short story Intersection.

Fortunately Freddie Wong's film turned out to be anything but a Wong Kar-wai remake, although it's instructive to compare it to 2046 to illuminate what's different in his approach. I haven't read The Drunkard – as far as I can tell it's never been translated into English – but Freddie Wong appears to remain much more faithful to the novel than Wong Kar-wai. The latter essentially created an idealised version of the story's protagonist, borrowed the book's narrative core, and mixed it with a bevy of other sources to produce a movie that continues Wong Kar-wai's long term thematic interest in the nature of memory, longing and loss.

Freddie Wong's film actually contains what I presume is a subtle dig at Wong Kar-wai, when the writer-protagonist Mr Lau has a dream that his autobiographical novel will one day be adapted for the screen – twice. The first time the director will not pay him a cent. When the second director pays him it will be the first time he has ever received a penny from the Hong Kong film industry for his work.

As this wry wink at contemporary audiences implies, Freddie Wong's take on 1960s Hong Kong, and the artist's position in the colony's brazenly materialistic culture, is much less romaticised than Wong Kar-wai's rose-tinted vision. The central character is also nothing like Tony Leung's debonair, devil-may-care playboy luxuriating in an air of perpetual melancholy. The Drunkard's Mr Lau, played by Taiwanese actor John Chang of Brighter Summer Day fame, is a tortured soul on the wrong side of middle age, wrestling with poverty, traumatic memories of wartime Shanghai, and an alcoholism that threatens to destroy him.

Tony Leung in 2046 – dissolute but debonair.

John Chang in The Drunkard – just dissolute.

A steady parade of women drift in and out of Lau's life, but unlike the titillating sex scenes and soft-focus melodrama of the writer's romantic liaisons in 2046, the relationships of The Drunkard are marked by Lau's awareness that his precarious financial situation and alcoholism make him poison for the women in his life. One of the film's most heartbreaking sequences sees him abandon his lonely landlord, in the knowledge he will never be able to satisfy her quiet longing for companionship and love. Lau salves his own need for physical comfort by paying for sex in the seedy bars he frequents, his disgust with the sex industry matched only by his self-loathing for his inability to resist it.

In short, The Drunkard is an altogether grittier portrait of early 1960s Hong Kong than anything Wong Kar-wai has offered, because each director has quite different concerns. Wong Kar-wai's Hong Kong is the dream-like city of his childhood memories, a half-imagined scene always hovering on the edge of reality. Freddie Wong's world is much more grounded in the material deprivations of the era, and the cut-throat culture it produced. More specifically, The Drunkard asks what the role of an artist is in a society where the money is the only value and instant gratification is the only pursuit.

For all its contemporary surface sophistication, the culture of Hong Kong and the position of the city's artists has perhaps not fundamentally changed. As Freddie Wong noted in a recent interview, “Even though the movie is set in the 60s, after 50 years, most of the characters and situations in the novel still resonate. Hong Kong is still very commercial; people want to make money... After 50 years, the situation hasn't changed.” Beyond China's borders, the commodification of culture is no less extreme, making the question of what we truly value – and how me measure that value – more pertinent than ever.

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