“Driving Miss Daisy” this ain’t, but a wealthy Hong Kong woman and her mainland Chinese chauffeur do make a small, indefinable connection as they go through their own financial meltdowns in “Bends,” Hong Kong helmer Flora Lau’s observation of China-H.K. relations. Aesthetically, Lau’s debut is beautifully assembled by a top-pedigree production crew, but it remains a modest accomplishment in scope and impact. Although the film radiates festival appeal, its lack of strong dramatic incident will hinder it from making a dent in the domestic market, even with A-list leads Aloys Chen Kun and Carina Lau onboard.
Fai (Chen) is a mainland Chinese immigrant who has obtained Hong Kong citizenship. Due to the intricacies of Hong Kong law, however, his pregnant wife, Tingting (Tian Yuan), has no right of abode; she cannot live with him and is ineligible for healthcare. She and their young daughter, Haihai, shuttle secretly between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. As Tingting’s delivery draws near, she and Fai find themselves between a rock and a hard place, threatened by a hefty penalty for forfeiting the one-child policy in their homeland, yet unable to afford hospital fees in Hong Kong.
Fai’s employer, Anna (Lau), is the bored, pampered wife of rich businessman Leo (Lawrence Cheng), who one day disappears without a trace. Beginning with suspended credits cards, frozen bank accounts, her daughter’s unpaid boarding-school tuition, and finally the sale of their tony apartment without her knowledge, Anna falls into a downward spiral (made frighteningly real by Lau) that serves as a suggestive allegory of the city’s surface glitter and shaky foundations.
Anna’s attempts to make ends meet are deliberately paralleled by Fai’s scramble to finance his wife’s delivery through an illegal birthing service in China. Anna sells stocks, spiritual charms and antiques, while Fai hawks spare parts from Leo’s Mercedes and has them secretly replaced with cheap Chinese knockoffs. A more experienced helmer might have jazzed up the narrative with a bit of black humor or developed more meaningful exchanges between the two protags before building up to the moment when their fates finally intersect.
Although she’s been given little character depth or personal background to play, Lau exudes pathos and grace, whether in her insistence at keeping up appearances with her high-society friends, or in her pathetic superstitions. Gorgeously bejeweled and outfitted by Miriam Chan, with style advice from William Chang, she’s impossible to take your eyes off. As a result, her pain registers more acutely than that of Fai’s, even though his situation is more dire; Chinese heartthrob Chen never quite convinces as the meek working-class lad, and Tian likewise projects only moods, without a trace of personality.
Christopher Doyle’s luminous, fluid lensing offers visions of spacious rooms and empty highways rarely seen in crowded, bustling Hong Kong, reinforcing Anna and Tingting’s loneliness and isolation. Sparse dialogue and haunting music lend an alienating effect; other craft contributions are also excellent. The original Cantonese title translates as “Crossing the Border,” with the implied double meaning of “Crossing the Line.”