Fu Bo (2003)
by: Wong Ching Po & Lee Kung Lok
It's no secret that I'm in love with the Hong Kong cinema era 1992-1996 for one for one special reason, Category III. During that time, Hong Kong cinema produced some of its most outrageously violent and sleazy films but amongst all that, there was some serious devotion to subject matters by directors like Billy Tang (Run And Kill). It's memorable for that but also a lot of the movies were just shameless, guilty pleasures in my mind. Since then there hasn't been a movement towards these kinds of projects on a constant basis and I accept that. Everything has 15 minutes and time ran out for this kind of Cat III. Flash forward to 2003 and the debut from Wong Ching Po & Lee Kung Lok, Fu Bo. No, it's not supposed to signal the return of Cat III but this independent drama effort comes with cast familiar to hardcore fans of the era mentioned and a thoughtful approach to the dark subject of death.
Category III seemed free of many restrictions and same can be argued for independent productions. You work in smaller ways but can achieve much more freedom to create a thorough movie. Fu Bo is one such indie film, shot on video, and attempts to convey to us three different plot strands concerning three different people, all surrounded by death and loneliness. As it stands, Fu Bo is a film with good points and bad points in most of the crucial departments.
Being indie, the filmmakers have the freedom also to play around with structure which probably will frustrate those viewers wanting to be hooked within the first 5 minutes. Jumping between the main characters of Fu Bo, the priest and the killer is done without the thought of needing 10 minutes with each character before diverting. This is all well and good in terms of approach but the directors only really achieves one of its goals; the portrayal of the Fu Bo, played by Liu Kai Chi of Infernal Affairs II.
The three characters connect through death but only the killer and his actions connects to Fu Bo. It's the actual theme of death and what it does to someone surrounded by it that connects them all and its more clearly conveyed through Fu Bo than the other two. Fu Bo, or an mortuary assistant, and the other men working with him are low key, just as the line of work is portrayed as in the film. There are mostly elder men there whom all have learned to be numbed by death or rather respectful of it. In comes a youngster, played by Lee Sze Chit, more energetic and full of questions. He wants to form a bond with his mentor Fu Bo but is never really let in beyond anything but the work. The film actually quickly loses this young character with no real pay off but it gives us a chance to subsequently focus more on Liu Kai Chi's character, someone the filmmakers put their biggest trust in, with good results.
Fu Bo's character arc is familiar to an extent but with Liu Kai Chi's reserved performance, it actually becomes genuinely intriguing to follow him. He's one of those people who has his job, is skilled at doing it but looking at his posture, his way of talking, he has probably little else and we feel for him because of it. The movie doesn't go hugely into detail but we witness his attempted interactions with his son for instance (the mother is played by Paulyn Sun from Ichi The Killer). At this point in his life, not much else is going to happen and he can only observe what he might've gained or lost. Death may have gotten him to this point in mood and his existence could be seen as close to death as a living person can come. It is rather sad to watch but it's a successful portion of the film even if it doesn't feature much positivity at all.
If we then look at the remaining characters in focus, namely the priest/cook (played by Jacob Mense) and the triad assassin, (Hugo Ng from Brother Of Darkness) there is a feeling of less faith in the material. While Fu Bo's journey throughout the movie doesn't really come full circle but remain interesting to watch, these two register very little with the audience AND doesn't seem to go anywhere. Truth be told, Hugo Ng's character Giu, struggling with an inner conflict with killing has some form of closure at the end. The problem is that it's never explored to any satisfying degree other than in basic form. There was opportunity for it in the case of Giu and Hugo Ng certainly sure has matured enough as an actor to pull off complex character work. The material isn't there to work with to the fullest though. The point with Jacob Menses's character has more to do with the endless circle of his existence that may be satisfying to him. He cooks for death row prisoners and offer them a chance to bear their soul during their last remaining hours. Here also lies the problem that so much focus is put on Fu Bo that there's barely enough time to care or dig deeper into these other characters. A longer running time was perhaps needed (the movie is only 82 minutes) but overall the plot structure and its themes are presented well thanks to the attention to Liu Kai Chi's character. The directors are first timers after all and what's shown here has much ambition but not all of it put to good use. I welcome more efforts from Wong Ching Po and Lee Kung Lok. They have a good sense of narrative in parts but such things as the tacked on triad subplot towards the end feels devoid of logic in terms of motivations from the triads themselves. Then again, triads can go brutal for very little but nevertheless beats were missing to get the full effect. Actually, it's revolves around the biggest shock of the film so sloppiness here was unfortunate.
The technical aspect of the film does come off well though. The video look, especially for the morgue scenes, enhances that setting and Wong Ping Hung manage to churn out some good to decent cinematography as well. Parts of it is set to little practical lighting which works in certain long establishing shots, emphasizing the loneliness and dark shadows of the existence of Fu Bo in particular. At other times, in the same scenes even, there has been an option to shoot as natural as possible, resulting in some overly dark photography sadly. Wong Ping Hung otherwise makes the movie look rather competent with basic but atmospheric camera work. Some red colour filtering isn't exactly subtle in terms of what it symbolizes though and does detract. The directors also edited the picture and creates some more intense film language, in particular for Giu's story. It can be a bit pretentious but overall add some atmosphere and good mood to this character. Otherwise they are very generous to actors by letting certain scenes play out in longer takes.
Now remember, this is a Category III rated motion picture and with Fu Bo comes graphic scenes. With a majority of the film taking place in a morgue and seeing people at work there, you are going to get graphic images. It will be a queasy ride for some but I saw no problems with it as it isn't there to titillate. The effect work is above par also, one of the better conceived aspects of the film. The music by Tommy Wai has its better points in the first half of the film. Here his best score work comes in the morgue scenes where there's an distant electronic piano in the background. It becomes as desolate and dead as the setting and works wonders for the atmosphere there. He amps the electronic parts of his score in the second half which actually sounds good but does not fit with the scenes played out for the most part. It's just too much for the stillness of it all in my mind.
Since the movie is slow paced and low key, we get performances matching that. Again have to mention Liu Kai Chi who fares the best with an excellent, understated performance where his downtrodden look and reserved dialogue speaks volumes about his character. Jacob Mense, speaking Portuguese mainly since the film is set in Macau, seems like a bland actor but with the low key nature of the film, he becomes bearable. Veterans Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang also logs not so important but solid cameos as death row inmates.
Fu Bo is a solid debut from Wong Ching Po & Lee Kung Lok. Skill in directing and conveying more complex characters is there as well as a visual thinking but ultimately you have a bit more flaws than positive remarks. Thanks to the central performance from Liu Kai Chi, Fu Bo becomes a worthwhile characterstudy, in one of the three cases.
Panorama claims full frame on the back cover but the movie is presented in 1.85:1. As mentioned, this is shot on video and I'm not sure whether or not the lack of sharpness is an intentional choice. It does make the transfer seem lacking but overall remain watchable.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track has some good surround ambiance but mainly is centered, even for music, Dialogue is presented well but a little uneven mixing between the elements towards the end make it less audible than I would've liked. A 2.0 Cantonese option is also included.
The English subtitles seem a little sloppy in places but are perfectly comprehensible. A set of Chinese subtitles are also selectable. Panorama disappoints in terms of extras because there aren't any. I would've at least liked to see a trailer and maybe get some biographical background on the directors.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson