Below The Lion Rock: Director Allen Fong Series (1977-1979)
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Again employing my feeble, Western eye looking in, the RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) produced and hugely popular Below The Lion Rock series has nowadays been made available for outsiders such as myself. Choosing to highlight the stars and directors that made their name on TV, in the case of Allen Fong, here we have one of the leaders of the late 70s/early 80s new wave of socially relevant cinema. Eventually winning an impressive 3 Best Director Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Father And Son, Ah Ying and Just Like Weather respectively, it seemed highly appropriate and logical that Fong would begin flashing his straightforward, documenary-esque glimpses of life in an still ongoing series of films that at this time highlighted the backsides of society, the common and the historically crucial.
This 2 disc box set contains 6 short films Allen Fong directed for Below The Lion Rock:
Media Specialist Peter Lam provides a short intro, explaining the geography of what's below the lion rock, the aim and content of the series, which then leads us into our first short feature. The recipient of the Gold Price at the 5th Asia-Pacific Youth Film Festival, this all together terrific musing on life and death hits you hard in the most joyous and somber of ways, all colliding in a cinematic sensibility that fans of Allen Fong's subsequent work should feel right at home with. At center is young boy Hoi (Wong Wei) who's mostly left in the caring hands of his grandmother (veteran actress Chan Lap-Pun who appeared alongside Andy Lau and Chow Yun-Fat in God Of Gamblers among other things). Fong's camera catches everyday glimpses of life but soon settles on Hoi's quite involved tale of growing up. He knows little of how to handle death yet appears suitably detached from it, meaning Fong is making us stay and watch to see how Hoi will settle emotionally by the end of the story. Hoi is enterprising, running around with a collecting can at cemeteries where he plants flowers and does other minor duties for grieving ones. Is this cold behaviour by him and all the kids or are we coming back to the theory of this being a suitably detached view on life? Or are they all closing their eyes for the future by appearing like there's nothing to give a rats ass about? Not quite according to Fong but this flip-flop, quite a tumultuous one, is a pure, subtle joy to follow and the view of innocence hopefully growing into maturity is supported by several striking images, symbolic and otherwise. Most memorable being a sequence of the kids being kids for an afternoon, playing war games on a hill. The emotions run quite high in Fong as a director and that is transferred well onto the key moments of death on screen, be it natural or not. Life starts over again and again and is a constant learning curve, for better or worse. There's a certain evil on display in the young characters but it's a naive one and it definitely may change the perspective of some of us cynics out there. Oh, it may look like a pure cynical view come ending time but Wild Child doesn't feel overbearing despite. Below The Lion Rock may have been a series for its people but this effort catches our attention over here too.
Director Of Broadcasting Chu Pui-Hing speaks during this particular intro about what types of stories came out of Below The Lion Rock, what creative freedom was bestowed upon the directors and what profiles the series gave birth to. We then launch into Old Plough which isn't a playing ground for future shining stars in front of the camera but we remain with two, long lasting veterans: Lee Heung-Kam (who played the mother of Yuen Biao's character in Alfred Cheung's classic thriller On The Run) and a brief appearance Chan Lap-Pun from the previous short. Although we're getting familiar with the local and nostalgic feel the opening credits of Below The Lion Rock flashes, Fong continues to invite the entire world into his tales, this time focusing on a poor rice man called Old Plough (Old Lai in the subtitles). Into his fifties and unmarried, he longs not so much for marriage bliss and sexual comfort but someone to work alongside him in order to ease his physical burden. He buys a wife from Thailand in quite the shady way, not worrying about the language barrier but instead working ethics. He may have gotten more than he bargained for though as the wife displays some pronounced nausea...
Old Plough further cements Allen Fong's desire to keep proceedings stale and static which is very fine because there's a master in training on display here. Telling it simply but less tragically compared to Wild Child, Old Plough makes less of a ruckus in its journey and is more about how a man progresses using the marriage method that surely many Hongkies utilized or saw being utilized. There's comments launched at the Thai women as being deceitful, your age old gossiping in other words but the short is also quite the anti-dote to our prior one in the way that it's often very light and even funny. Lai's minor adventure to the city contains the odd fish out of water gag as low class people obviously won't be familiar with certain modern technology and it's really endearing watching Lai, and his surroundings, experiencing a transformation (not only when he's shaving and eventually getting dressed up). Threatening to go awfully concrete on us with comments on female slavery, the film rightly stays focused on other matters such as both wife Wonna and Lai adapting to the situation, making themselves a future. We adapt. The more uplifting experience in the set thus far.
Same Chu Pui-Hing intro appears before the final and shortest inclusion on disc 1, Nightwalker. Shot on the night streets of Hong Kong and taking on a different gritty feel therefore, it's a very forced exercise where Fong might not necessarily be out of his depth but the short length hinders intentions to come alive to the extent that they did when working with the 40+ minute format. Paul Chu (The Killer) plays a press photographer with a numbed stance towards his job where it's gory pictures first and humanity later down the checklist. One type of nightwalker. Social commentary number one ticked off. Wong Wei of Wild Child plays a street kid that isn't looked out for by anyone, being in the danger zone at all times and when he happens upon Paul Chu's character, he finds influence in the obviously repulsive adult. Social commentary number two ticked off. The points about the media, paparazzi's even, are well-stated and clear but anyone could speak of these notions and not make a short film out of it. News it might've been then but it's a weak link amongst Fong's work on the first disc.
We start from 1977 again and Peter Lam speaks specifically of Ode To Un Chau Chai as having an actual impact on the government, leading to better treatment for the immigrant boat people that are the subjects of Fong's here. Fisherman Tai-Shing (Kwok Fung) faces very little fortunes in his trade and tends to gamble away money he's earned anyway. It's a spiral at work here, of deceit and bitterness, with only the apparent light being shone in proceedings via the innocence of the children. But even they know not of upright morals or the difference between right and wrong. Fong is still on board with his and the series throughline, hitting us with a social commentary right smack on the nose but it's not a fashion statement. If anything being this bleak was needed judging by the reported effect the film had and Fong shooting right smack in the middle of his concerns is THE choice for the tale. Shirley Wong (billed as Sally on the dvd) shines as the wife and she could later be seen more widely in Patrick Leung's Beyond Hypothermia.
Producer of Below The Lion Rock and former director of broadcasting Cheung Man-Yee gives us an insight in the shift of focus between the early and latter days of the series before Choice Of Dreams comes upon us. Different types of grass root character stories pops up here, focus being on Taiwanese immigrants. We actually are presented with 3 short stories, starting with "The Singer" where Meg Lam (The First Time Is The Last Time) struggles to get out of the hostess hole she's in and make it as singer. Awfully colourful for an Allen Fong piece, he begins demonstrating the difficulty and the harshness that means climbing the career ladder. It's more doom than bright future here, as also demonstrated in the second piece "The Beautician". Chiao Chiao (One-Armed Swordsman) shacks up with a fellow immigrant but when a new one is introduced (future comedy queen Carol Cheng looking young and gorgeous), paranoia sets in concerning whether or not the girls are reporting each other to the authorities. Finally in "The Writer", Pamela Pak plays an outspoken poet with plans of grandeur to marry and have kids no matter what it takes, including going through and hurting several men (one being a photographer played by Phillip Chan) before settling on her goals. The commentary brought up is valid and certainly in an influential package like Below The Lion Rock, the entire body of Choice Of Dreams is wise to talk of immigrants and their situation. It however feels less like Fong's territory this as he's always found the best nuances working with characters below even the ones presented here.
Same Cheung Man-Yee intro opens our last piece of the collection and New Life ends it on a suitable note, combining all that's been the essence of Below The Lion Rock as a series and Allen Fong as a filmmaker. Au Shu-Jam is Song, recently released released from prison on a drugs possession charge. Wishing to start over but not being welcomed into his family or by the job market, the spiral seems to be headed downwards for Song again and director Fong opens up forum with the question: who's to blame? It's quite a vicious attack on all involved, including our lead character. There's no truly outspoken hints of his hurt towards the family but we are sympathetic towards his plight a little. One hopes you're living in an open minded society where individuals with sincerity are given a chance. As it turns out, Hong Kong doesn't invite you in again after you've rejected it. You bear a blame despite. Lead Au is tremendous, sinking his teeth into a character role that is truly a visual factor too as Song is small, worn out and irrationally desperate at times.
Still an obscure filmmaker in the sense that availability of his films have been mostly restricted to the vcd format (with the catalogue being mostly out of print anyway), the fact that more has now been made available, even if it's "only his TV work, spells wonderful things for fans of the excellent observer Allen Fong. The stint at Below The Lion Rock paved way for even more acclaim and it's fascinating to witness how tuned Allen Fong's eye already is. A match made in heaven, the majority of the shorts tackles issues close to heart of its local audience and today easily travels to an very sufficient degree.
IVL presents the films in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Print quality varies a few notches, some dictated by original shooting conditions (Wild Child features quite drastic changes in light and colour between shots in certain scenes) and the presentations are pretty much non-remastered (scratches on the print, muted colours etc). Clarity is reasonable throughout though and the rough look often complements the films themselves.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks (with Thai being heard briefly in Old Plough and Mandarin dominating Choice Of Dreams) overall sound fine without much detractions. Wild Child fares less well though with a wide mono experience that is often harsh and can be heard in the rear speakers as well. Adjusting your receiver settings a bit remedies this mostly but expect a tinned sound in the film overall.
The optional English subtitles read well and feels coherent. During one very easily understood sequence in Old Plough, they go missing however and the reference to Kafka at one point is misspelled. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
Both discs carry the same supplements, starting with a RTHK promo spot that precedes the main menu. The remaining extras are brief, English subtitled interviews with Ann Hui (2 minutes, 13 seconds) and Allen Fong (2 minutes, 35 seconds). Hui expresses admiration for Fong's advanced creativity and describes the difficulty to survive employing such a technique and stance as a filmmaker. Fong describes the structure of the series as being linear before he came on board and directed individual movies. Mentions of inspirations for Wild Child and casting choices are worthwhile but longer interviews would've been very welcome.
Cover Gallery showcases the top 10 entries in the cover art competition arranged in preparation for the release of Below The Lion Rock on dvd. These are often in tune works and refreshingly varied styles were selected in the end. Each entry is also accompanied by Chinese text. On the physical cover and in the menus, we also get clearer renditions of art for Wild Child (not included amongst the top 10), Ode To Un Chau Chai and more of a general one for the Allen Fong collection.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson