Port of Call

The dark crime drama Port of Call written and directed by Philip Yung, has been selected by the Federation of Motion Film Producers Hong Kong to represent Hong Kong in the best foreign-language-film category at the 89th Academy Awards.

Port of Call premiered at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival and went on to win seven awards at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. The film stars Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Patrick Tam Yiu-Man, Jessie Li, Michael Ning, Jacky Cai, Maggie Siu Mei-Kei, Eddie Chan, Harriet Yeung Sze-Man, Ellen Li, Don Li Yat-Long, Ronny Yuen, Tam Ping-Man, Noel Leung Siu-Bing, Tai Bo, Chan Lai-Wun, and Andrew Kwok Hon-Chu.

Director Philip Yung continues to combine experimental approaches with mainstream cinema in Port of Call, an unsettling work inspired by a shocking Hong Kong crime. The film’s plot sees Hunan girl Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li) arriving in Hong Kong in 2009 via the mainland city of Dongguan to join her mother and sister in their public housing flat. Soon, at age 16, she leaves school to work in small-time modeling and at McDonald’s before getting involved in compensated dating – a form of prostitution in which clients are solicited online.

With Port of Call adopting a format that frequently leaps back and forth across years, viewers quickly come to know that Wang won’t live to see her 17th birthday. Early in the film, van driver Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning) turns himself in for her murder and says the girl had wanted to die. And investigating officer Chong (Aaron Kwok) gets deeply involved in the case to the point of obsession, trying to pry details out of one of Ting’s few friends and peering into Wang’s life. As Chong persists, one question in particular gnaws at him: “If a person can make such a sacrifice, sell their body so that they can live another life, why would they suddenly want to die?”

Port of Call draws on the real-life 2008 murder of 16-year-old Wong Ka-mui, a mainlander who had moved to Hong Kong and soon after dropped out of school. Wong was strangled when providing sex services and her body wasn’t found, as the killer flushed some parts down the toilet, dumped others at markets and threw her head into the harbor. The case drew sensational reporting, but in Port of Call Yung opts instead for a more sober look at the topic. Names are altered, dates shifted and other case details changed as Yung uses the crime’s basic outline to launch a wider study of people involved, and social factors at play, in such a ghastly scenario. By avoiding a traditional crime-film narrative that could drive the criminal investigation toward a grand cinematic payoff, the filmmakers instead turn to intimate character study and social drama at length alongside the graphic sex and gore scenes that earn the film its over-18s rating. The move is risky within popular cinema, and echoes the adventurous spirit of Yung’s previous film May We Chat, which spun new troubled-teen drama out of a 1981 film that few in today’s youth audience have even heard of. The decision to bind the movie’s time-shifting scenes to four chapters lends Port of Call a certain art-film feel, as does the careful, subdued lensing by DP Christopher Doyle. But Yung weaves in clearly commercial elements too. While some pop aspects feel forced (Chong’s colleagues can be absurdly cartoonish), others like the neat use of online chat text and Cantonese song fit more appropriately.

Boosting the commercial appeal is the presence of top-billed Aaron Kwok. The star dresses down for his role as a shabby, greying cop and shows his versatility in a demanding role that goes from comic to pained to oddly creepy. New talent should also be considered an attraction, as Port of Call offers remarkable performances from big-screen newcomers Jessie Li and Michael Ning. Fresh-faced Li impresses in a wide-ranging role that few young Hong Kong actresses would dare to take on, especially with its explicit scenes, while stage actor Ning holds a striking presence as an awkward and deeply unhappy loner. The pair’s superb showings, along with those of other young actors, strengthen the film as a classy depiction of youth issues. With Port of Call arriving as a third feature from Yung to focus on young people, the director is standing out as a key chronicler of marginalized Hong Kong youth in film. [ FEFF]

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