A multifaceted portrait of the bonds that tie within a working-class Hong Kong family, “Little Cheung” reps a distinct change of pace and style for writer-director Fruit Chan. This third leg of his unofficial trilogy on the territory’s mind-set, before and after the 1997 handover to China, discards the raw, edgy quality of “Made in Hong Kong” and “The Longest Summer” for a softer, more humanist style that recalls the ’80s pics of fellow H.K. helmer Allen Fong. Result is both effective and affecting, showing Chan as a filmmaker who’s anxious not to be categorized too soon. Fest and arthouse exposure looks secure on the strength of helmer’s rep.
New approach fits the subject matter, which is a simple family yarn seen through the eyes of two kids. Where “Made in H.K.” looked at rootless youth and their escapist fantasies, and “The Longest Summer” used criminal society for an epic portrait of the territory’s evolution, “Little Cheung” is more miniature in its concerns, harking back to Cantonese working-class pics of the ’50s in its tapestry of ordinary folks’ lives. As such, it functions more as another view — a look at the very roots of Hong Kong’s volatile social mix — than a grand finale to the trilogy.
Title character, whose voiceover casts a parallel perspective on events, is a 9-year-old kid (Yiu Yuet-ming) who’s very much a street punk in the making, a pre-teen prototype for many of the characters in the other two movies. His father (Gary Lai) owns a restaurant, Mom plays mahjong, their maid is Philippine — and making money is his main dream.
Story proper starts in spring ’97 when Fan (Mak Wai-fan), a girl Cheung’s age, tries to get a job in his family eatery but is turned away. Cheung, never one to miss a business opportunity, “hires” her as his assistant on takeout deliveries.
Thus begins a tapestry of scenes that sketch the street community in which they live. Gradually we get more info about the family: Cheung, it turns out, has an elder brother whom he has never met, and Cheung’s aged grandmother instills in him a respect for Cantonese culture with tales of her travels with a well-known opera singer, Tang Wing-cheung, known as Brother Cheung. (Pic is dedicated to Tang, whose passing is shown in real TV footage.)
As the various vignettes proceed, and characters’ fortunes change, the movie slowly develops depth in layers. When the Brits are about to leave and the mainlanders move in, Cheung remarks that H.K. is now his, and Fan, who is the child of illegals from China, ripostes that it’s hers.
Main dynamics of the second half are Cheung’s desire to find his missing brother and his relationship with his ornery father, a traditionally tough Chinese paterfamilias with a caring interior. Latter strand leads to one of the most powerful sequences, in which Cheung, punished yet again by his dad, stands trouserless in the street, singing one of Brother Cheung’s best-known songs.
Though some of the types are familiar from Chan’s previous two movies, the way in which they are portrayed and developed is far mellower. As the mighty are laid low, people die or move on, and circumstances mutate, the picture discreetly becomes a celebration of Hong Kong’s diversity and its ability to adapt. Final reels, though a tad overextended, are extremely moving — for their big-heartedness and simple humanity.
Technically, “Little Cheung” is completely different from the trilogy’s other segs, with none of their jittery editing or nervous energy. Carefully shot, and featuring smooth tracking shots, it’s almost mainstream in comparison. Performances by the non-pro cast feel effortlessly natural.