“Even the least imaginative people are incredulous about aging: surely this isn’t the only story, the only body I get to inhabit.”
To start off, Hong Kong films may not be as complex as we thought. Their dramas may be intense, and their scripts are often convoluted — yet this is nothing compared with the demands of watching TV. In Hong Kong, people sort through turbulent plots every day — thanks to a variety of mystery and action serials with astonishingly tricky twists. By U.S. standards, Hong Kong TV throws out the rule book, making even a series like Lost seem conventional. This isn’t simply because of the events depicted — when it comes to shock “reveals” and killings, Lost still wins. What makes Hong Kong dramas so unusual is the intensity of their emotional tracking, while maze-like plots are being played. Our sympathies lie with whatever the camera is pursuing — which means that even when the narrative goes off a cliff, it survives the drop with relationships intact. A series may totally absorb us in, say, a ghost story, a romantic episode, or an investigation of corporate power, before making a switch to a new genre. A “mainstream” caper like To Get Unstuck in Time has all the passion and exuberant leaps in time we might expect — yet after each jump, the script sets us down in an unexpected place. A drama can signal “build-up” only to cut a story short; just as we prime ourselves for a long narrative arc, fulfillment comes early. Storylines turn back on themselves without losing traction; a script may seem intent on “putting you through it” only to swerve back at the moment of catharsis. For anyone interested in exploring the hidden turns of Hong Kong cinema, watching TV is one of the most challenging things you can do: an exercise in wild, precocious storytelling.
I was recently mesmerized by the hit series Greed Mask: a drama that initially appeared to be bits of Psycho (1960) and ’70s thrillers mashed together. It starts off by investigating a series of suicides in locked rooms — but before long, the case is abandoned. That mystery is left for a later day: a sealed chamber to be opened at a certain time. Instead, we pursue a new series of objects: the secret history of a millionaire, a woman who is behaving oddly, and a sudden loss of love between father and son. By following these connections, the show works its way into the dynamic of a powerful family — giving us a base to embark on further chases. The script juggles multiple story arcs, and it keeps them going like a series of sliding systems, where our interest skips from one level to the next. It’s like a game of snakes and ladders, or alternatively, a many-headed snake: storylines spread at a manic pace, only to curve around and bite back into the central line. For instance, in the midst of one story, a woman is taken to a psychologist, in hopes of recovering her memory of a crucial event. However, during the session, another man happens to get hypnotized, along with the witness. For a moment, their lives coincide — the script then jumps to his story, seeming to wipe out the previous plot.
This kind of move is typical of both Hong Kong film and TV. The plot of the show resembles a number of conveyor belts, moving along parallel tracks. Occasionally, they meet at a switch-point: long-building plans lead to a sudden flip, so that we spin off into a new plotline. All it takes is for two people to be simultaneously hypnotized, and the tracks get crossed. However, even though the action has shifted, the original story continues to progress. It’s an underlying plot which keeps extending: ready to catch us on the next switch. Nothing is ever forgotten: sooner or later, we reach down to scoop up any leftover strands of story.
In the climax of the series, a man with a highly complex vendetta gets shot in the head. He loses most of his memory, and thus finds he has committed a number of elaborate acts that make no sense. He becomes confused: his past appears to be a carefully constructed plan, yet he can’t recall the next step, or feel the necessary passion to execute it. Did he do all this out of hate — but why did he hate so intensely? Maybe he did it for the money — yet he no longer feels materialistic. He has a choice: be good from now on, or go back and retrieve his story, as well as his evil thoughts. In order to recover his sanity, this man is forced to literally “re-member” his own villainy: he has to relate to his own history, feel the appropriate amount of hate, and make revenge a conscious choice. As it turns out, forming a train for one’s own actions is as good as a grudge: the character becomes as furious and vindictive as ever.
With its multiplying points of view, and constant re-takes on scenes, Hong Kong TV requires a lot of work — not to mention emotional effort. Opening sequences tend to be a montage of future events, designed to generate romantic anticipation or dismay. Theme tunes are a coded blend of emotional cues. Initially, the characters of Greed Mask appear weirdly flat — but that is because these people are, as the title implies, role-players. As sympathetic as they are, each character is a dual-faced object: ready to swivel around and reveal a new persona, or even a new sex. What might surprise us — and what relates most closely to film — is the use of sentiment. Dramas generally have an underlying mood of earnestness and compassion. As in film, the heroes of TV tend to be flashy hunks with depth — for instance, a 40-year-old with orange spiky hair who is engaged on a spiritual quest, and fiercely devoted to his family. Moments of insight are interspersed with scenes where corny emotions break through: the revelation of one’s real mother, waiting in the wings. Power games take place within a culture where grown men pursue crime-solving with their cousins, or glamorous adult children hold hands with their parents. Relationships are based on hugging and soft toys as much as sex. It’s a combination of cuteness and spirituality that is specific to Asian cinema: an interest in pinball, knick-knacks, and heart-shaped icons. Like the tinkling toys in Kitano’s Kikujiro (1999), these accessories are both highly processed, commercial objects — pure sugar — and personalized tokens that spark memories of joy. In Hong Kong, the treatment of feelings is unusual in that childlike affections are depicted alongside emotional maturity. Relationships may consist of cuddling, but they also reflect a balanced attitude to loyalty and adultery. When love falters due to an absurd series of misunderstandings, there’s an understanding that the original track can be regained. It’s in this context — plot density combined with sweetness, crazy turns tied to intimacy — that I want to talk about Hong Kong cinema. Here, inverted expectations have an emotional payoff: the stylistic game has weight.
So — on to the film at hand. Teddy Chan’s Wait ‘Til You’re Older has a seemingly familiar plot. It appears to be a version of the Tom Hanks film Big (1988): a coming-of-age story and a tale of redemption. It’s about a child named Kwong (Howard Sit) who wishes to grow older — if he was larger and more independent, he could escape the dramas of his family. The wish comes true, thanks to the invention of an old man, but Kwong comes to realize that age has its limits as well as freedoms. All of this sounds fairly predictable — although, even at the beginning, the film’s notion of growth is a little unsteady. There is something stagy, or unreliable, about the depiction of age: despite the film’s sophisticated effects, the old man who controls time wears a tacked-on beard and powdery whiskers. The growth spurt itself is also something of a gag: in an instant, the boy emerges full-grown, played by superstar Andy Lau. However, despite these tone changes, most of the film plays as a journey of insight. In his new guise, Kwong makes some serious discoveries. He finds out the real origins of his family — in particular, the relation of his father to the stepmother he regards as a “bitch,” as well as the way that all the families around him have been constructed. Each day he learns a little more, and another line etches into his face.
Wait ‘Til You’re Older looks beautifully designed — perhaps misleadingly so. From the way each crack sears into the face, to the elegant composition of the schoolroom, the film is full of clean, sharp images — as classy as a Microsoft ad. There’s an intelligent and personal use of computer graphics: for instance, to open out vistas behind a still figure. Andy Lau turns Kwong into a compact dynamo: he’s much more suggestive playing a child than in his usual romantic roles. This isn’t Tom Hanks’ innocent boy-man but a precocious and sexually inappropriate child, with an undisguised interest in gossip. Like many young boys, Kwong is mischievous yet weirdly insistent on a set of rules. He is adventurous, but remains wary of the perceived limits of authority. The film hints that these pedantic habits of play may be the first signs of adulthood. Lau gives Kwong the reserve as well as the excitement found in small children. He has a young boy’s solemnness in making transactions — he looks the shopkeeper squarely in the eye while handing over coins. He adopts a stiff expression for photographs and holds his backpack protectively. Lau’s evolution from a child to a wise man is so gradual that each emotion seems earned — it doesn’t feel like a sugar rush. When playing an elder, Lau sticks to a familiar template — being “irascible” and having an old-timer’s chuckle — yet his “gladdening” expressions of old age are genuinely moving. However, this film aims to be more than just an effective fantasy. It is, by turns, sweet, sentimental — and radical.
The opening sequence shows an image of growing tree branches, done in a child-like hand. These naïf drawings risk being too cute — they resemble a stationery set, or a Villeroy and Boch plate — yet they aren’t merely adorable. Whether old or young, Kwong is someone who enjoys inhabiting the periphery, fantasizing about life from a distance. As a boy — and later, as he grows — he sits in the tree outside his house, discussing its inhabitants. It’s a way of haunting one’s home — speculating about one’s own drama. Therefore, showing us an outline of trees is way of signaling the “edge” of story. However, there’s another reason why the movie is so fixated on branches. The fact is that this is a story about dead ends as well as growth. A boy grows and grows — and then, having reached maturity, his growth stops; from that point, he can only await death. Yet there is nothing gothic about this realization — it’s merely logic. I recently spoke with some Hong Kong acquaintances who remarked that they found sad endings to be a cliché in local cinema. They were tired of films with tragic, wistful endings, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). According to this view, a film with a sad end is a cop-out because it allows you to wallow in feelings, whereas a happy ending is a brave and unexpected choice since it dares to be hopeful.1 Thus even the paranoid films of the ’70s might be regarded as “conventional” — as opposed to optimism, which would be truly radical.
Even though the ending of Wait ‘Til You’re Older is a “downer,” it surprises us, because the story grows and builds in a familiar way, before revealing its real focus: the mystery of the family. Family arcs are constantly being redrawn — relationships aren’t what we assumed, and people have kept their histories suppressed to hold everyone together. Children’s memories are shaped by desire, and the stories Kwong tells himself turn out to be wishful re-creations: a conflation of different events. After learning the real identity of his mother — as well as that of the “bitch” — Kwong realizes he has been wrong, and forgiveness is in order. But what is he going to do with all this insight? The answer is: not much, other than get ready for death.
Looking at this film with Western expectations — as I did — one may assume that a plot gets complex so that it can be unraveled: that a story heaves up only to come down. Therefore one may learn to dread complications, ambiguity, and, especially, mistaken identity. I often feel antsy during scenes of misunderstanding, thinking they will take ages to untangle: watching one transgressive act isn’t worth the fuss. However, the revelation of this film is not just the family secret. It’s the fact that what is being shown is the story: there’s not going to be a come-down. The shock is that the narrative ends where it does — we won’t have to pay for complexity, and pain is internalized rather than resolved.
Most plot-driven films (and books) tend to project an endless line of growth. We prepare to embark, then ascend along a curve. However, even in the midst of fulfillment, we instinctively plan for our return journey: making allowances for emotion as well as time. In this film, we brace ourselves for the return trip — but the end comes too soon, and there’s nowhere to move.2 We thought there was time to make meaning — to feel the significance of events — yet these aspirations are cut short. Chan shows us all the maps we use to navigate a regular film — and then makes them redundant. The movie is about the shock of the finite: a narrative that keeps growing to fruition and then drops off. All of the characters are dismayed by the prospect of limited time: partners have been chosen and gestures inhabited on the assumption that there would be time to erase everything and start again. Even the least imaginative people are incredulous about aging: surely this isn’t the only story, the only body I get to inhabit.
Time is linked to the messy or “sordid” aspects of all the film’s relationships. The women are frequently attracted to older or married men: to maturity as a token quality. Kwong’s teacher Miss Lee (Cherrie Ying) becomes involved with the engaged Chow (Gordon Lam) because she likes the idea of stability, only to find that “age is unreliable” — the older people get, the less steady they seem to become. The men in the two central relationships are unfaithful partners and jokes in the eyes of their students: Chow is a stiff official in a bow-tie, while Kwong’s father Chan-man (Felix Wong) is a long-suffering sports coach. However, on closer inspection, these two don’t really look like men at all. With their small, compact heads, they look less like adults than youths who have slipped away from boyishness, without knowing it. Each one has developed cynicism and inflexible ways of talking — perhaps as a joke, or a temporary defense. Now the pose has become fixed, and what we see are two worn, middle-aged boys: as paralyzed by indecision as ever. Chow and Chan-man are dangerously quiet husbands and fathers who lead their families into pain, and then step helplessly around the wreckage. Initially, each man seems like a cowed, submissive partner, but that lack of communication is aggressive: both stay silent while affairs are conducted and misunderstandings pile up. Wives and girlfriends are left to rail or be shrill — they have no alternative, since the family dynamic is a script that plays itself out.
However, when Kwong joins the men on their evening off — sneaking a cigarette and playing pinball — he discovers a different side of his father. Here we see that none of the characters are really “themselves,” or as they choose. When the men run into their students at the arcade, they speak severely to them; a second later, they burst out laughing, mocking their own humorless reactions. In this case, the men enjoy behaving like caricatures of themselves — yet most of the time they don’t have that luxury. For these adults, manners have been adopted out of habit or weariness, and expressions that were never chosen have seared into the face. Just as the film shows age burning into people — lines cracking through hair and skin, in a branch-like pattern — stereotypes constantly infect gestures. A personality seems to consist of attitudes one never got around to changing or noticing. Even mannerisms that were taken up ironically, or for a lark, become the set of a face. Kwong initially mocks his stepmother (Karen Morris) for her concerns about appearance, but when we learn of her earlier abandonment for a younger woman, we realize the frantic pain she has gone through. On occasion, this “bitch” can’t help adopting sarcasm and bitterness — merely because it is her left-over part to play. Only towards the end do the men get to enjoy a moment of poise — literally a grace note. As Chow and Chan-man play arcade guitar, they attempt to harmonize, and for an instant, they’re completely in tune: there’s a flash of joy at plucking the right notes in tandem, for once.
When Kwong visits his friend Bear (Chim Pui Ho), he finds a different kind of “patchwork” family: Bear’s father has a young and pretty rural wife with whom they dine via the internet. Kwong is skeptical — given his history, we see that this child is constantly suspicious of adult relations, and assumes infidelity is the norm. This is another relationship with an age difference and a power imbalance — yet the contentment of this family makes it clear that growth can start from any point. Bear is a warm and unaffected boy — a child born out of an unusual arrangement, but who regards his desirable young mother as an archetype. Life begins despite imperfect or implausible origins, even though Kwong wants to save growth for when he’s “ready.” When Chow breaks up with Miss Lee, it is not callousness but sentiment that causes him to end it. As he explains, when he gets older, “valued memories get fewer and fewer” — to leave his partner would mean archiving all of those experiences. Therefore his choice is to live with the connections he has: the story has been taken to this point, and he feels he must continue. At the end, most of the characters pick a seemingly random point, and start living from there — this inevitably results in some kind of growth.
There are many, many branches in this film — even the set of the children’s theater is a complex piece of stage equipment consisting of trees and planets. This machinery unfolds and surrounds people who accidentally wander onstage, enclosing them in leaves, and sending miniature suns over their heads — Kwong’s crime seems to be witnessing too many suns too quickly. People begin growing or aging when they’re not quite ready; wisdom is dispensed, but they can never get into that perfect, balanced position to receive it. While Kwong only seems to be getting started on his adventure, in a matter of days he turns into an old man begging to be fixed, or reversed, somehow. At that point, the inventor appears and announces: “There’s no going back.” As such, the title is more of a premonition than a benign reproach. In the end, this is a story about a phenomenon that leads to a boy’s early death. “Coming of age” means heading towards death sooner than expected — and that’s a kind of logic, too. Accelerated aging is no life lesson: there’s no rewinding to a smooth, unlined face. We assume that all time spent in movies is disposable, but this boy has simply lived a faster, sadder life — with only a few chances to exercise his newfound sensitivity. Andy Lau doesn’t get together with his maternal love interest; Miss Lee remains fixed in a single time loop at the end — still wishing and hoping, coping with the fall-out of her affair. In several of Lau’s recent films, plots are unexpectedly closed off, and we end in a mood of resignation. In Running on Karma (2003), his character develops a sympathetic bond with Cecilia Cheung — but shortly afterwards she is killed, and her peaceful image is left to circulate via digital camera. In Dance of a Dream (2001), a girl’s romantic fantasy is punctured; in the conclusion that follows, hurt feelings are not allayed, but everyone decides to accept the situation with good humor. That film also ends with an overview of branches — emotions are left to sit and await reconciliation. Whether it’s Lau’s influence as a producer or star,3 all these films have the ability to live with asymmetry: to present complex relationships derailed by circumstance.
Wait ‘Til You’re Older is such a graceful film: its depiction of a sped-up life seems so light and effortless in comparison with Hollywood features. It uses a familiar genre to plot its initial trajectory, before defying expectations at the end. It’s then that we realize how different the ambitions of Hong Kong cinema are. Almost any story becomes compelling if regarded as the one: an irreversible train rather than a series of conceits. The protagonist starts off anticipating a cozy lesson; suddenly, the future is cut short, and he has to play the card he was dealt. The movie is about accepting a finite history — and body — as one’s own. This means giving up certain luxuries we’re used to — there’s no last-minute dash under the timeline. But in the moments before closing, each character strikes an unexpected note.
- How exciting it is to find a culture in which something you thought was radical is merely a cliché (as opposed to the reverse, which is disheartening.) Nothing raises the bar like discovering a world where ideas beyond your grasp are commonplace. One of my favorite sad endings is in The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), when Richard Chamberlain’s Dantes returns after a long epic voyage to reclaim his former love, Mercedes (Kate Nelligan). But as Mercedes explains, a reunion is no longer possible: a barrier has grown between them. In other words, feelings are ephemeral and circumstantial — unfair as it may seem. It’s not only a matter of lost love: it’s just that somewhere along the line, one develops a conviction that a relationship can’t be worked out. However, in my experience, trying to discuss this kind of moment with a Hong Kong viewer generally provokes a “Duh?” reaction. The gentle, downbeat ending — which we also see in Zhang Yimou films — is a hackneyed device, barely worth stating. [↩]
- This kind of disorientation can also occur when reading a book. For instance, in a gothic novel like Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, trying to visualize the convoluted travels of the characters results in a constant re-routing of passages. Just when we think we’ve crossed a border, we’ve actually arrived “home” via a sideways route; we project faraway cities that turn out to be close by. Most narratives depend, to a degree, on mental plotting: where we extend ourselves, where we make our “base.” Therefore even a seemingly conventional text can confound our expectations. A return that occurs earlier than expected leaves us feeling somewhat crowded, or hemmed in. On the other hand, a book may encourage us to make our “home” in an exposed area: a place we happen to be stopping through and will never see again. [↩]
- I wanted to talk more about Andy Lau’s great performance, and its fascinating take on child psychology. Lau plays Kwong as a highly individual kid, who nevertheless appears to have internalized the voices of the adults around him. Occasionally he takes on a nagging, impatient tone, and has a clear excitement over trouble and fuss, which doesn’t quite seem to belong to him. Kwong also has the wiliness of an adult — he’s frank in telling girls their reputations, but only when he wants to get the best of them. However, his version of evasiveness is still charming at this stage — for instance, pretending to fall asleep to avoid comments he doesn’t care for. Even his potential love interest says, “You’re so silly”: as in other films, Lau is too silly — or rather, too slippery — for a relationship. The only actor he gets intimate with is the chubby boy who plays his best friend. Lau is extremely physical with this child — he lays his hands all over the tubby body, slapping the stomach and thrusting an arm around the shoulders.
Lau captures a familiar aspect of children’s behavior: adhering to a strict set of codes while easily transgressing norms, and confidently tailoring reality to fit one’s purpose. When he doesn’t get his way, Kwong tries to bulldoze over common sense with a know-it-all reassurance. Since he has nowhere to stay, he tries to barge in on Bear’s family while posing as a teacher. When Bear objects (“You’re a teacher. How could a teacher move in with his student?”), Lau’s expression is genuinely incredulous: “How could he not?” Lau’s weird ways — depicting bizarre reactions with minute accuracy — are essential to Hong Kong cinema. He is one of the few actors who can make obvious sentiment work for us — he always hits a strain of emotion from a new angle. [↩]