Evans Chan’s first feature, appropriately titled “To Liv(e),” was prompted by actress Liv Ullmann’s 1990 public condemnation of Hong Kong for deporting 51 Vietnamese refugees. Focusing on the anxiety and uncertainty of Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, this is an engaging family melodrama , interspersed with imaginary letters to the actress. “To Liv(e)’s” distinctive quality should take it into fests and some specialized playoffs.
At the center of things is Rubie (Lindzay Chan), a young magazine editor, and her relationships with her parents, brother and boyfriend.
Her strained interactions form the backdrop of a story that combines real and imaginary characters to examine the peculiar status of Hong Kong, which will revert to Chinese rule in 1997.
Some plan to leave; others, like the British poetess Elsi (who is interviewed), expect to stay and “have a date with history.”
Rubie’s spiritual/political journey, punctuated by personal crises, offers mediation on exile, identity, cultural clash between East and West and, above all, the fate of Hong Kong as an “entrapped corner of global politics.”
Excellent lensing of Hong Kong’s modern, Western look underlines it as a city lacking any distinct character –“planted there at random,” as Rubie says.
In its mood, “To Liv(e)” may remind some of Ingmar Bergman’s existential Angst in such classics as “Shame” (1968), which starred Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as musicians morally challenged by a civil war.
But pic’s narrative strategy attempts a Godardian style. It’s too bad Rubie’s writing lacks the wit and sophistication of Godard’s 1972 “Letter to Jane,” in which he engaged in political discourse with Jane Fonda after her notorious Hanoi stint.
Rubie’s letters are too literal –“If you take a longer view of our history, it won’t be so repulsive to you.” Still, letters manage to add the necessary tension between pic’s personal and political dimensions.
“To Liv(e)” works well as both family melodrama and political treatise. The family narrative tells of Tony, Rubie’s brother, who plans to go to Australia with his older fiancee, Teresa.
Rubie’s parents don’t approve of his romance with the divorcee, with Teresa’s humiliation at a disastrous family dinner perhaps meant to show the prejudices of the Hong Kong people.
Chan reveals some cynical and droll humor in a scene where a beautiful actress impersonates a character called the Nuclear Goddess of China, and in another where Teresa fears that she won’t come back from Australia alive because people there get skin cancer from excessive sunbathing.
Humor culminates in tragicomic farewell party for Tony. When his old flame arrives, sparking a jealous tiff, Rubie mediates, only to find herself in hysterics when her boyfriend-painter fakes cutting off an ear, Van Gogh-style.
Low-budget ($ 150,000) indie boasts accomplished lensing and editing. Chan, who won acting award at the 1991 Portugal Sinatra Festival, toplines a uniformly good cast.
George Bernard Shaw’s words “China, help thyself,” written after his unpublicized 1933 visit to Hong Kong, highlights pic’s subtext, proving timelier than ever.