“The darker the underbelly, the prettier the top layer,” says one of the main characters in “G Affairs,” a striking, metaphor-heavy excursion into corruption and moral decay in contemporary Hong Kong. This knockout debut by young director Lee Cheuk-pan revolves around half a dozen people whose lives are connected by a severed head that appears in the film’s breathtaking opening shot. Standing stylistically apart from just about everything else in recent Hong Kong cinema, “G Affairs” picked up a swag of Hong Kong Film Awards nominations ahead of a brief local release in March. Lee’s urgent and vital film ought to enjoy a long festival run, especially in light of recent events that have placed renewed focus on the Special Administrative Region’s immediate and long-term futures.
“G Affairs” is at once a pulpy crime drama and an arresting exercise in experimental storytelling. The film takes its title from a device whereby everything is related to the letter G. Preventing this from being merely a gimmick is an early sequence in which G is established as a vital cog in the relationship of two key characters. The proliferation of G words and G visual references gives the film a strange but effective cohesion, even as events leap backward and forward in time and voiceover monologues take the story on tangents loaded with disdain for institutions and social trends.
The initial G moment is Bach’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in G Major, played in the aforementioned opening shot by schoolboy Tai (Lam Sen). In a long, unbroken 360-degree move framed in 4:3 ratio, the camera glides from grainy wildlife images on a video-projector screen to Tai at his cello and a prostitute having her hair savagely pulled back while attempting to answer the door. As she is having rough sex with an unidentified man, a human head comes flying through the window.
The first impression is of a police procedural, with cops grilling Tai about the incident while he claims to have amnesia. But it soon becomes clear that solving the case is much less important than conducting a detailed examination of those connected to the shocking event in apartment 6G.
Abandoned by his money and status-obsessed parents, Tai is an outspoken and heavily bullied student at St Cassian’s, an elite private school. Tai and Asperger’s-case classmate Don (Kyle Li) have been dragged into nefarious activities by Lung (Chapman To, in great form), an extremely corrupt cop first seen shooting an unarmed man dead and laughing it off with the quip, “Who cares if it’s a Mainlander?” After his wife died of gastric cancer, Lung hooked up with Xiao Mei (Huang Lu, excellent), a world-weary sex worker from the Mainland whose tragic backstory comments powerfully on possible future developments in Hong Kong’s legal system.
Teenager Yu Ting (Hanna Chan, superb), daughter of Lung and classmate of Tai and Don, emerges as the pivotal figure as Kurt Chiang Chung-yu’s intelligent and densely detailed screenplay unfolds. A clever girl who’s bullied relentlessly and tells viewers in voiceover, “I’m not liked, and I don’t care,” Yu Ting initially represents an innocent and unsullied Hong Kong. Before long, however, she is engaged in an oral sex-giving affair with Markus (Alan Yuk), a stitched-up Christian teacher at St Cassian’s, and a regular customer of Xiao Mei’s.
With the invaluable assistance of Karl Tam’s moody photography, Barfuss Hui’s outstanding stream-of-consciousness editing, and a pulsating score by Joe Ng, Lee constructs a sweaty picture of people suffocating in an environment where elders have abandoned responsibilities, self-preservation seems to be the only rule and despair will consume those who cannot or refuse to adapt. But “G Affairs” does not abandon all hope. The beautifully composed final shot is open to any number of interpretations, including optimism and even joy.