Port of Call

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I am back from India (for the time-being.. pretty sure I’ll be sent back in the next few months), so I had better get back to writing before all the movies I have watched slip from my memory. This time I shall have a look on a film I have waited AGES to see. Andrew H over at EasternKicks has been cheerleading this one for what seems like a year, so I have been eagerly awaiting it’s availability. So without further ado.. a synopsis!

“Port of Call” follows the story of a 16 year old Hunan-born girl, Wang Jiamei (Jessi Li), who joins her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister in Hong Kong with dreams of being a model. That dream turns into a nightmare as she slides into prostitution, and eventually winds up dead and her corpse dismembered in grisly fashion. Investigating the case is world weary Chong (Aaron Kwok), but the crime itself is solved easily when Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning) hands himself in. The question that possesses Chong is therefore not whodunnit, but rather why did he do it?

Two things about this film make it a tough film to watch. Firstly, it uses a very fractured timeline, slipping back and forth in time to tell the story of Jiamei’s life, her murder and the subsequent investigation. It also marks the film into three chapters which broadly cover the initial investigation, an examination of what bought the protagonists into their fatal situation and the understanding of why it happened (and the effects on those involved). This makes it quite a demanding film to watch, especially in the first act where all is fairly confused. I sense this is a deliberate attempt to show the fog of the Police investigation, and things do get structurally clearer as the film progresses – but it challenges the patience of the audience.

Secondly, it is fairly graphic in the depiction of Ting’s actions in disposing of Jiamei’s corpse. This isn’t just in the sense that it shows rather than tells, but also it intersperses this with Ting’s almost robotic court testimony, a mixture of the visceral and the mundane that is very uncomfortable to watch.

So what we have in essence is an arthouse police procedural, telling a tale (inspired by a true story) that isn’t just about a murder, but about the social issues of young people (especially immigrants from the Mainland) in modern day Hong Kong.

Aaron Kwok gives a pretty good performance as the weary detective, with his shock of grey hair and ill-fitting glasses, wrapped up in a job that has cost him his marriage and access to his young daughter. But it is the newcomers that really shine. Li is amazing as the doomed Jiamei, displaying a wealth of depth and complexity to a character that in another film may well have been little more than a cipher. Ning too give a fabulous performance, which has deservedly won awards.

Director Philip Yung does a great job in getting performances out of his cast, and sprinkles a healthy dose of social commentary throughout the film, even if the fractured storytelling is initially off-putting. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle adds a suitably grimy filter on the images on display. I saw the theatrical version of around 100 minutes – at Festivals there was an additional 20 minutes in an approved director’s cut.

To be perfectly honest I am torn on this one. There was so much to enjoy (using the term loosely) about this film, yet its structure and occasionally stomach-turning visual are an impediment to really adoring the film on every level. But one moment, where Kwok’s character admits to texting Jiamei’s father, who is unaware of his daughter’s death, from her phone in order to protect him from the pain is a moment of heart in a film that could have been just too unbearable in its darkness. So I am giving it a Highly Recommended.. if you can handle the style and subject matter.

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