The Drunkard” reps a sincere if uneven adaptation of Chinese author Liu Yichang’s celebrated 1963 novel about a middle-aged writer whose artistic ideals evaporate in a fog of booze and dames. Helmed by film critic-turned-filmmaker Freddie Wong, pic stylishly evokes a long-gone Hong Kong, but the protag’s downward spiral lacks the high-voltage physical and emotional energy the story calls for. A modest future in regional arthouses and specialized broadcast is indicated; domestic release details are yet to be confirmed.
Regarded as the first stream-of-consciousness work in Chinese literature, Liu’s novel presented its central figure as a casualty of Hong Kong’s economic boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Lau (John Chang) is a serious-minded writer of short fiction and newspaper articles, but his work is no longer demanded by a populace obsessed with money and frivolous entertainment. Criticized by editors for not including enough action in his stories, Lau drifts down the path of pulp novels and is eventually lured into writing a serial titled “Golden Lotus” for Lee (Lam Chiu Wing), a sleazy publisher of porn.
Entertaining notions of becoming a screenwriter, Lau discovers there’s no call for highbrow material, and the screenplay he does produce is stolen by unscrupulous filmmaker Mo (Taiwanese helmer Yim Ho, in a rare thesping turn).
Artfully employing voiceover and graphics to illustrate Lau’s painful memories of his youth in war-torn Shanghai, Wong crafts a potent portrait of a man with no sense of place or purpose. Less successful is the depiction of Lau’s surrender to alcohol and women, including 17-year-old seductress Mary (Katie Kwok), needy housewife Mrs. Wong (Irene Wan, excellent) and Lulu (Joman Chiang), a beautiful young prostitute.
Finely conveying the intellectual and artistic side of Lau’s downward spiral, pic can’t muster much passion or excitement for Lau’s affairs. Respected Taiwanese vet Chang (who was also featured in 1991’s “A Brighter Summer Day”) appears tentative in scenes requiring Lau to demonstrate why women many years his junior would find him attractive.
The color-saturated lensing by Henry Chung, the smoke-filled hostess bars in Yank Wong’s production design, and the beautiful frocks, pant-suits and figure-hugging cheongsams created by costume designer Petra Kwok all recall the look of Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which drew inspiration from Liu’s 1972 novella “Tete-beche,” set among displaced Shanghainese in early ’60s Hong Kong. Soundtrack includes a terrific collection of Western love songs and jazzy numbers, many of them refreshingly obscure. Other technical work is impressive on a modest budget.