A panorama of 40 years of Hong Kong history via the family of a left-wing film projectionist, “Mr. Cinema” gradually evolves into a moving tribute to the eternal adaptability of the territory’s folk. Unflashily shot — at times like an old-style ’50s Cantonese movie — but cleverly combining a disparate mix of actors (vet Anthony Wong, goofball comic Ronald Cheng) in dialed-down mode, pic is a quality item for Asiaphiles and fest sidebars. Helmed by Samson Chiu, best known for his more satirical portraits of the Hong Kong psyche, “Golden Chicken” and “Golden Chicken 2,” film went out locally in June.
Beginning with a screening of an old movie for a small, select audience — a scene that only makes emotional sense when seen again, at the end of the picture — the story is one big flashback, as projectionist Zhou Heung-kong (Wong) recalls the past four decades of his life. Living in a simple hillside tenement with his devoted wife (Teresa Mo) and baby son, Zhou was one of the territory’s sizable pro-Mainland contingent during the ’60s, with an idealized view of Maoist China and a lifelong wish to visit Tiananmen Square.
Always attending meetings in his free time with fellow pro-Mainlanders, Zhou has a combative friendship with his pro-Taiwan neighbor, Luk Yau (John Sham, in pic’s only overstated perf).
By the early ’80s, when he’s become a brawling schoolkid, Zhou’s son, Zhou Chung (Cheng), becomes the narrator. Teased for his father’s unfashionable politics, Chung also spends time with Luk’s daughter, Luk Min (Karen Mok), but is too shy to advance the relationship, keen as she is. These scenes, with both actors playing way below their real ages, have a playful sweetness that recalls schoolkid romances of the period.
Chung’s business escapades in China during the early ’90s — a period when many were ripped off during the country’s initial economic boom — ring very true, even in their comic exaggeration here. But when tragedy strikes the family just before the 1997 handover, Zhou’s life enters a final, mellower stage.
Many of the pic’s small details will be lost on general Western auds, but the script, peppered with news items marking the passage of time, is built on personal relationships rather than politics. Chung’s on-off relationship with the ever-patient Min is one major strand that binds the episodic yarn together; another is Zhou’s friendship with his aging group of pro-Mainlanders (some of whom prosper as China opens up) and his selfless sponsorship of a friend’s son (Andrew Lin) to study business in Beijing.
Wong, Cheng and Mok are all uncharacteristically restrained here, as is Mo, who’s almost the de facto emotional center of the movie as Zhou’s ever-supportive wife. Final reels pack a real emotional punch as Zhou — who remains a lone idealist to the end — has only his movie dreams to support him.
Leon Ko’s through-composed score, a relative rarity in Hong Kong cinema, is a major assist throughout. Bill Lui’s production design and William Fung’s costumes score small points over the passage of time, and clips from left-wing Mainland movies also add flavor.
Pic was produced by longtime pro-China company Sil-Metropole, expressly to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover.