Kim-sum …Josephine Siao Fong-fong
Ip Yuk-sheung … Anita Yuen
Chun … Daniel Chan
Chan Yiu-cho … Chung Kai-fai
Ying Mang-lung … Waise Lee
Aunt Ming … Tam Sin-hung
Liang Siu-tin …Siu Chung-kwan
Mimi … Michelle Wong
Lam, the Director … David Wu
JoJo … To On-yan
Nelly … Lee See-kei
Yuk-sheung’s Father … Chiu Hung
This warmhearted, emotional and cheerfully entertaining backstage comedy-drama is primarily a showcase for one of Hong Kong’s top actresses, Josephine Siao Fong-fong, who dominates the film in much the same way a Joan Crawford or a Bette Davis dominated similarly themed Yank films of another era. But director Shu Kei’s achievement here goes beyond a superb performance from the lead and, in its enlightening insight into the artistic community of Hong Kong as the end of an era nears (the hand-over to China next year) it should attract arthouse customers in several territories.
The title of the film refers to the imaginary line drawn in a theater at the point an actor crosses onto the stage; according to tradition, when the actor crosses this line he leaves behind his or her personal life and becomes the character being played. “Hu-Du-Men” refers also to the crossing of other lines, including those of gender and country, but it shouldn’t be seen as a film containing a profound message; this is first and foremost a study of a remarkable woman, and all the rest is a bonus.
Character-driven films are unusual in Hong Kong cinema, which makes Shu Kei’s assured pic a rarity. Siao plays a celebrated star of Cantonese opera, Lang Kim-sum, known as Sum; although married with a teenage stepdaughter, Mimi, Sum long ago dedicated her life to her profession and even abandoned a son, whom she left in the hands of a friend from Singapore. Now, she’s about to retire; her businessman husband, Chan, is having difficulties, the much-feared changeover is looming, and the family has decided to relocate to Australia. Sum is learning English with this move in mind.
Sum is more than a much-loved actress; she is also a businesswoman who runs her company, the Shining Sword Troupe. Her innovations include bringing in a Western-educated director, Lam, to inject new ideas into the traditional opera, and this decision has caused some backstage bickering.
Sum’s life is profoundly affected when she discovers that Mimi has lesbian tendencies, and that Chun, the boyfriend of the Troupe’s new ingenue, Yuk-sheung , is none other than her son, although Chun hasn’t the slightest idea that the much-admired actress is his mother.
The screenplay was adapted by Raymond To Kwok-wai from his play, though there’s nothing at all theatrical about the film, apart from its setting. To and director Shu Kei skillfully juggle a large number of characters and events with humor and precision, and the numerous sequences in which the opera itself is performed are great fun.
The flawless cast members give generous support to the radiant Siao. Anita Yuen, a big star in her own right, is a delight in the relatively small role of the ingenue, Chung King-fai impresses as Sum’s tradition-minded husband, and Daniel Chan is charming as the long-lost son.
Bill Wong Chung-piu’s fluid, unfussy camerawork is a major asset, as is Kwong Chi-leung’s pacy editing. This is by far the best of Shu Kei’s films to date.
With proper handling, this charmer could be a commercial breakthrough for Hong Kong cinema. It’s already been invited to several upcoming fests, and should find appreciative audiences wherever it travels. A catchy English title needs to be found, however.