A schoolteacher and his wife confront a middle-aged crisis in “July Rhapsody,” a delicately textured and emotionally subdued pic from veteran director Ann Hui that emerges as a superior soap. Though the elements that Hui uses here are all familiar from countless other films, there’s a serenity and quiet beauty about this small but impressive film, thanks in no small degree to the beautifully shaded performances of Jacky Cheung and Anita Mui. Fests and quality TV programmers should find a place for this one, which may have more success in ancillary than theatrical.
Lam (Cheung) and Ching (Mui) have been married 20 years and have two sons. But Lam, a teacher, is acutely aware that his contemporaries, who mostly found careers in the business or entertainment worlds, are far more prosperous than he is. Lam is being increasingly bothered by a flirtatious student in his class. Wu (Karena Lam) makes little secret of the fact that she finds her teacher attractive, and stays after school taunting him with a variety of provocations. She’s pretty, sexy and self-confident, and Lam finds his resistance gradually weakening.
However, the situation has a strange parallel in his married life. He and Ching had been at school together, and she had had an affair with their teacher, Mr. Seng (Tou Chung Hua). In fact, their first son, Yue (Eric Kot) is not Lam’s son but Seng’s; Lam has long ago accepted this, but the boy has never been told the truth about his father. Now Seng is old, alone and dying, and Ching decides to spend as much time as possible with him in the hospital, neglecting her family in the process, and opening the way for Lam to spend more time with Wu.
Hui brings a freshness to this potentially hackneyed material, thanks to the subtle use of flashbacks and the assured, measured performances of Cheung and Mui. There’s a gentle humor, too, in this familiar but still relevant story of a couple looking back on 20 years of marriage with regrets for mistakes made in the past.
Attractively, though unobtrusively, photographed by Kwan Pun Leung, this deceptively simple film contains enough universal truths to engage with international audiences. It’s a small movie, but its honesty prevents the potential cliches from swamping the delicate material.