The power of music is revealed yet again through writer/director Kenneth Bi’s imaginative tale of a gangster-in-training (Jaycee Chan is ideally cast as Sid) whose escape from crime-laden Hong Kong to the serenity of rural Taiwan is predicated by his ever-inquisitive hands.
The edgy rock drummer has the audacity to bed Carmen (Hei-Yi Cheng), only to have their post-coitus bliss interrupted by the unexpected appearance of her full-time love, Stephen Ma (Kenneth Tsang in a totally convincing performance as the head of a gang imbued with the twin characteristics of style and ruthlessness—“Don’t get mad get even” a mantra to die for). Rather than the summary execution of the daring young man deliciously wearing only soap bubbles and sipping his “host’s” vintage champagne, Ma demands the amputation of both hands for his pound of flesh. That request is made of Sid’s father, Kwan (a gritty and well-shaded performance from Tony Leung Ka-Fai) whose own gang is Ma’s prime rival. To add spice to the narrative, it seems the cuckolded crook once saved his boar-hunting competitor’s life. So in Job-like fashion, Kwan gives his word that his rebelling son’s wayward fingers will never caress anyone again.
After a character-establishing scene where Sid’s veterinarian sister Sina (Josie Ho) hides her wanted-by-everyone sibling only to have her enraged/estranged dad knock a tooth out of her “fuck off” mouth, Sid, under the tough-love supervision of Uncle Chiu (Roy Cheung holds his familial cards tightly to his treacherous chest), is banished to a small town in Taiwan, even as someone’s digits are hacked off and delivered on chilling ice as proof. But that’s only half a loaf—Ma wants a second helping.
The film’s real purpose and drive magically comes to life as the exile follows his ears up a sparsely inhabited mountainside, coming under the musical spell of Zen drummers perfecting their craft.
From there, and for much of the rest of the narrative, the plot becomes as predictable as the resolution of a plagal cadence (essentially, the hot-shot, city-dwelling drummer undergoes an initiation into the deliberately slow-paced troupe and must discover “drums without drumming” if he is ever to be permitted to join the pulsating, physically engaging ensemble; the possibility of a further love interest is also teased at but never consummated—Angelica Lee taking on that role most ably).
The film’s salvation—at one with the plot—comes from the music. Andre Matthias’ original score is a marvel of gradual instrumental build in and around Chih-chun Huang’s deceptively simple compositions and arrangements, tidily executed by the members of U-Theatre. In the former, solo cellist Trey Lee beautifully devours the long lines as, almost one by one, colleagues Eckhardt Hemkemeier, Jan Larsen, Rodrigo Reichel and Maria Goudimov join the fray with their considerable skill and passion. Spectacularly swirling around her bowed and plucked colleagues are the interventions above and below thanks to Sandro Friedrich bewitching artistry on dizi, shakuhachi, bansuri and wondrously breathy bass flute.
The finale is a marvel of staging, tellingly intercut with the new realities of life and death in Hong Kong, and a stunning father-son metaphysical duet which—wordlessly—brings unforgettable closure to their difficult relationship. Cinematographer Sam Koa and editors Bi and Isabel Meier magically weave the disparate components into a compelling whole.
Long after the storyline has vanished from memory, much of the soundtrack remains—proof positive that “it can stay in your heart.” JWR
Love and War
Operatic Animal Farm
This brief puppet opera literally pits the dogs of war against insurgent alligators, has an overweight pig offer a plate of bacon and tells a tragic love story. A demur nurse, Bunny (engagingly sung by soprano Marie Alexis) falls ears-over-heels in love with a romantic Bear (tenor Fredrik Sjöstedt lacks security and sustenance in the top) whose day job is a fighter pilot. Their whirlwind romance (replete with a vapour-trail heart etched in the sky, full moon and spectacular sunset) is suddenly interrupted by a full alert.
Director/composer Fredrik Emilson has fashioned a score that touches the borders of melodramatic cliché (we go to war with menacing triplets and militaristic snares), yet is beautifully performed by the Swedish Radio Orchestra and enhanced in the closing scene by the Royal Swedish Opera Chorus. Let’s declare this experiment a success and move on to greater heights and wider collaboration for the next round. JWR