Fruit Chan’s second film this year is an incisive look at Hong Kong from the point of view of people from mainland China who come to the territory, often illegally, to make more money than they could ever earn back home. With a cast of non-professional actors, the simple story homes in on two female characters, one a 21-year-old prostitute, the other a child. The fine, probing drama, though slightly overextended, should be seen at more fests in the coming year and will likely be in demand for quality small-screen slots.
The first half of the film is set in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, where Yan (Qin Hailu) and Fan (Mak Wai Fan) are neighbors. Yan works as a prostie for a pimp (Yung Wai Yiu) and lives in a tiny apartment where she eats takeout food and watches TV. She sees her clients in various seedy hotels. Each encounter begins with a shared shower, and, like the other prostitutes with whom she hangs out at a cafe, Yan’s skin is beginning to peel because of an excess of showers. On good days she services as many as 38 clients, activity heard but not seen onscreen.
Fan’s family home isn’t far from Hong Kong, but she, her parents and younger sister have moved there illegally so that the father, who has only one leg and scrapes together a living in the city, doesn’t have to travel every day. Fan spends her days with her mother washing dishes for a nearby restaurant, and is a wide-eyed observer of the comings and goings on the street. She and Yan become friends, and Fan is witness when Yan’s pimp is knocked unconscious by an angry Indian storekeeper wielding a durian, a large, spiky fruit. The durian, which crops up a couple of times later in the film, is used as a metaphor for Hong Kong itself — large, hard to handle, smelly — but deliciously sweet, if not to the taste of everyone.
About an hour into the film, Yan’s permit to stay in Hong Kong expires and she returns to her home in the chilly north, where the snow and ice are a stark contrast to the steamy southern metropolis. She cuts her hair and, with the nest egg she has brought home, plans her future; no one in her family knows what she was doing in Hong Kong. She decides to divorce her husband, hangs out with old friends, and contemplates returning to Hong Kong.
Through these characters, director Chan portrays starkly contrasting images of today’s China. The non-actors, especially Qin, are convincing. The complex character of the attractive young woman leading a double life reflects, in a way, the schizophrenic nature of the country itself.
Technically the film is OK, though the carelessly viewer-unfriendly jerkiness of the handheld camera is a frequent annoyance. Second half of the film drags a bit and could be tightened for greater impact. Overall, however, “Durian Durian” reconfirms Chan as an important director on the Hong Kong, and international, scene.