Thursday, 6 September 2007

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)

Comrades: Almost a Love Story is more than a love story.

HK people weren’t too interested in politics. Their religion is capitalism, and Money is their god. Came 1980s, out of a number of political events, serious, politically conscious HK film makers begun to address these anxious times. Well fortune isn't straying too far from the theme of this nice film.

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)As flood of Vietnamese boat people landed on HK Island, to explore these experiences, Ann Hiu made her Vietnamese Trilogy – The Boy from Vietnam (1978), The Story of Woo Viet (1981) & The Boat People (1982).

While wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in HK, as the handover of HK back to PRC in 1997 drew near, HK citizen themselves fleeing HK in droves in the 1980s. Another politically conscious female director Mabel Cheung tackled this social issues in her Migration Trilogy – Illegal Immigrant(1985), An Autumn's Tale (1987) & Eight Taels of Gold (1989).

With the Opening-Up and Reform of PRC in 1978, another political event that shaped HK’s social landscape. Movements of people between Mainland China and HK became possible. This movie explores that social happening.

This movie is the accumulation of all the romance movies that based on immigrant experiences since the pioneering Hong Kong, Hong Kong (1983). You could say this film is more than a decades long in the making.

The story covers a sweep of 1986 to 1995. In 1986, the socioeconomic divide between Mainlanders and HK locals were great. The Mainlanders were seen as country bumpkins by HK people with their Mao suits, ignorance of technology and their world outside China. While HK’ers were seen by our Mainlander Li Xiaojun (Leon Lai) as brash and loud.

In the period where the story takes place, there were socioeconomic stratification of sophistication with HK people being the highest in the pecking order, while Cantonese speaking southerners from Guangzhou being in the middle tier because while they're Mainlanders, they speak Cantonese, and Northerner being so far away from HK sits at the lowest rung of social and cultural meter of sophistication.

This socioeconomic stratification of cultural refinements can easily be distinguished through dialects. And so Mainlanders would be too embarrassed to listen to Mandopop diva Teresa Teng in HK for fear of being recognised as Mandarin speakers. Our enterprising heroine fails to take that social stigma into her business and make a miscalculation by selling Teresa Teng music CDs. Some social mis-readings could be financially expensive.

Many movies in HK during this period touched on this socioeconomic stratification of the Mainlanders. Another example being Her Fatal Ways (1991). The ‘Ways’ in the title refers to the many social faux pas of the heroine and her comrade from Mainland. The very word 'Mainlander' was tinted with put-down sentiment.

The HK's obsession in the socioeconomic stratification of Mainlanders, and our heroine Li Qiao and HK people's general obsession of wealth and social status all has to do with the fact that HK has a culture of strong class consciousness (inherited from both the Chinese and Bristish has a traditional cultures of class distinctions). This is very ironic because PRC had spent the 1st 3 decades in the class struggle to to create a classless society. After Opening-Up and Reform, our heroine from Mainland is trying very hard to upwardly mobile. Indeed, HK exported this class consciousness back to Mainland. Chairman Mao is rolling over his grave (probably a few hundred times already since 1978).

Also, while the Mainlanders aspire to be more like the HK'ers, HK people romanticising the West - as symbolised by Aunt Rosie's obsession of William Holden (aunt Rosie is prefered to be called by her English name). Ironically, the English teacher (Christopher Doyle - WKW's long time camera man), who's probably playing an American, is totally blind of class distinction, dating a Thai prostitute.

Towards the early 1990s in the movie, the film takes on the Mabel Cheung's migration story as the 1997 deadline looms near. Our central characters end up in, where else but NYC Chinatown (perhaps this is this movie's way of paying tribute to Mabel Cheung's movies). By 1996, the Chinese economic 'miracle' draws people back to Mainland China, and the word 'northener' or 'Mainlander' is now has an Olympic RING to it today (of course, 30 years on, the HK's rough edges have also been smoothed out, and people are mellowed out). In fact,by then instant millionaires overnight are common in China, while such occurrence is rarer than hen's teeth in HK. Talk about the quick reversal of fortunes and perceptions.

While I mentioned Vietnamese Trilogy, and Migration Trilogy, and they seem to address very different thing at 1 level, but at another level, all 3 things - these 2 Trilogies and this story - basically address the single common theme – people migrating to another places in search of better lives and the difficulties they encounter.

Romance fans needn't worry that all these social commentaries would get in the way of a good romance flick. And fans of Teresa Teng - like myself - would get an extra dose of bittersweet sentimental nostalgia.

This is 1 of the most insightful HK movie that captures the period in question, and the relentless pursue of happiness, wealth, social status remarkably well, and with gentle humour. Bravo!

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