In “Xenolith,” set in Hong Kong in the hot summer of 1987, two adolescent brothers are left to their own devices — and so is the audience. Gentle wisp of a story abounds in local color while depicting a smattering of small joys and defeats from the youngsters’ p.o.v. Emphasis on mood rather than narrative makes overlong pic unlikely to travel far beyond fests.
Chi, 14, is failing half his subjects at school. Younger brother Shing is a good student, but both boys are forced to spend their vacation cooped up in a tiny apartment studying, onorders from their hardworking dad, a corporate security guard.
The boys’ mother split for San Francisco six months earlier, and it is understood that the kids will join her in America someday but that Dad is not invited. The brothers pretend to apply themselves, but manage to play hooky in the bustling, impersonal streets of their city.
The summer incorporates a handful of low-key adventures capped by a scary mugging in a dark side street. In a series of strung-together anticlimaxes, the boys pine for their mother, the father feels inadequate, and life revolves around work and meals. Layers of bittersweet melancholy build and dissipate.
Closest pic comes to a political context is a sidewalk noodle vendor’s mournful account of how her own young son died in 1959 during the forced (and tragic) economic boom known as the Great Leap Forward. Her spouse died soon after they emigrated from the mainland.
Pic was shot during seven weeks in 1987 and was not completed until seven years later, partly due to personal circumstances of debuting femme helmer YN Wong Ho (H.K.-born and now L.A. resident) but mostly due to lack of coin. Final production tab was $ 70,000. Lensing is perfunctory and other tech aspects are adequate. Young, non-pro thesps are natural (the two boys are real-life brothers), and incidental music is OK.
But Wong’s pic relies too heavily on real-time activities and imagined but not demonstrated subtext. The cumulative effect, presumably desired, is of being stifled.