A pretty Mainland immigrant casts a spell over a bunch of Hong Kong shantytown dwellers with devastating results in Fruit Chan’s “Hollywood, Hong Hong,” a bizarre meld of the magical, mirthful and macabre. Anchored by a luminous performance from Mainland actress Zhou Xun (“Suzhou River”) as the young hooker, pic contains some of the best work in the maverick Chan’s career so far, but its switch into gross black comedy in the final reels may impede its acceptance by arthouse auds.
Film is the second in Chan’s planned trilogy about prostitutes from China trying to make it in the former British colony, and has a much lighter, less edgy feel than the first, “Durian Durian” (2000). The romantic undercurrents in Chan’s otherwise gritty movies that first became visible in “Little Cheung” (1999) are here given much freer play — to sometimes magical, sometimes sad effect. Most notable, however, is the switch in emphasis in the present pic: whereas in “Durian Durian” the young prostie was essentially used and abused by Hong Kong, in “Hollywood, Hong Kong” the boot is on the other foot, reflecting Chan’s perception that it is China that is now influencing Hong Kong rather than, as previously, the reverse.
The Chu family are a bunch of plug-uglies, built like sumo wrestlers, who have a pork meat stall in Hong Kong’s last shantytown, Tai Hom Village. The father (San Francisco-born Glen Chin) runs the business, helped by his two sons, Ming (Ho Sai-man) and Tiny (Leung Sze-ping). Early scenes — and even the main titles, stamped on pig skin — set up the earthy, sweaty, blubbersome environment in which the family plies its trade.
Also living in Tai Hom with his teenage hooker g.f. is 18-year-old punk Wong Chi-keung (newcomer Wong You-nam), who cockily dubs himself the “King of Kowloon Hill.” Spammed on his email by a beautiful young woman calling herself “Shanghai Angel Hung-hung” (Zhou), Wong meets her one night in an underpass and the two have sex on the hillside.
Meanwhile, Hung-hung has been stopping by the Chus’ eatery and ingratiating herself with the younger son, Tiny. Calling herself Tung-tung, and acting ultra-naive, she plays childish games with the kid, for whom she’s just a fun friend, a promise of a better life beyond the cramped alleyways of Tai Hom.
For the other men in the family she becomes more than that. In a hypnotic sequence where Zhou subtly oscillates between innocent and minx, she seduces the clumsy elder son in broad daylight and later starts to work her charms on the father. Soon, both men — and Wong — start getting blackmail letters from a lawyer (Fong Wai-hung), claiming statutory rape of Fong-fong (yet another of her aliases) unless major money is forthcoming. The fax to Wong even includes a picture of her semen-stained panties.
Chan decorates the central story with a range of other shantytown characters, including a slightly loopy Shanghainese doctor (Hu Wei-wen) who performs a catastrophic operation on Wong when he’s amputated by the lawyer’s heavies. It’s at this point, around an hour in, that the picture takes a grotesquely comic left turn, with severing of human limbs taking over from that of pork meat. (The whole Wong incident also revolves around the fact that his full name is a very common one among Cantonese, which may be lost on foreign viewers.)
Film recovers its poignant-romantic tone in the moving finale. But the detour into gross-out humor will be tough to accept for Chan’s more serious arthouse fans.
Pic’s title comes from the name of a mall-cum-apartment complex in which Fong-fong lives, right across the road from the shantytown: Plaza Hollywood, whose five modern high-rises look down on the inhabitants of Tai Hom as a permanent challenge to their cramped lifestyle. Thus, film is also an elegy to a now-vanished way of life in Hong Kong, with the final shot showing the shantytown now demolished. (Chan filmed the movie around the real-life redevelopment.)
In her first Hong Kong role, Zhou is superb, moving with ease between her various personalities and always convincing in each. In one extraordinary section, she first professionally seduces Ming, then is seen calmly servicing her pimp-cum-lawyer in his car, then runs off to play with Tiny in a mall. Other casting is spot-on, with veteran Chin and non-pros Ho and Leung making a totally convincing family of fatties, and Wong easily filling the skin of the young punk.
Lensing and editing are closer to the smooth feel of “Little Cheung” than “Durian Durian” and Chan’s earlier, nervy pics, though with no loss of realism except when a dreamier style is called for. Running time is about right, though one unnecessary montage of roasting pork and various love-making could easily be excised.