July Rhapsody (2001)
by: Ann Hui
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2002:
I have a confession to make. When I select my movies to watch or review the nominated- and award winning ones usually ends up in the shopping cart. Awards and nominations doesn't automatically guarantee a quality movie but I usually end up liking it enough to keep it. There are other reasons to give July Rhapsody a try though and that is because of the team behind the camera. Producing is the man behind The Lunatics and C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, writer is the woman responsible for Comrades, Almost A Love Story and Anna Magdalena and directing is the woman who brought us Visible Secret and The Story of Woo-Viet. This team behind such noteworthy films are, in order, Derek Yee, Ivy Ho and Ann Hui.
High school teacher Lam (Jacky Cheung from Bullet In The Head) have everything to keep you happy in your life; a job he loves and an ideal family life. Underneath the surface all is not well though. At school one of Lam's students Wu (Karena Lam from Inner Senses) have fallen in love with him and his wife (Anita Mui from The Heroic Trio) wants to take care of her former but now ill teacher. How this affects and what it has to do with anything gets revealed piece by piece...
I can't say I'm really familiar with Ann Hui's filmography. I've actually just sampled her 2001 horror effort Visible Secret but in general she seems like a director worth spending time with through movies. Mostly she's tried out the ever bendable drama genre (with social commentary mixed in) and Visible Secret was really one of the few times (or first?) where she's gone mainstream. Looking at that movie, nothing about it felt shallow or rushed and for once we found a clever & tricky script in a commercial effort (people didn't exactly flock to see it though).
July Rhapsody is filled with a lot of questions. Questions I or the filmmakers won't answer, at least not in the clearest of ways. The movie does reach a conclusion but it does also require the viewer to put him- or herself into multiple characters heads. Scriptwriter Ivy Ho's ability to capture the essence of ordinary persons is one of her main strengths both in this and earlier movies like Comrades. It may seem rather daring to state that what we're seeing could be taken from reality but through direction, writing and acting it does. Ivy has written a much more complex story compared to the other mentioned scripts and Ann Hui has with that done a very quiet film. Both husband and wife have sub-stories that we follow and the reasons for their individual pursuits are nicely developed and kept secret until very late. Her story is best kept under lid for the sake of non-viewers but his can be talked about without spoiling July Rhapsody. Lam tries to keep Wu at a distance for a long period of time but when his struggles becomes more evident he begins spending more time with her. The most obvious of reasons that he's doing that may be the lack of physical love in his family life but there's also the argument that he needs to put perspective on himself and his life. What better way to see himself than through an outsider. This part of the plot work really well, mostly because we can't truly predict where it's going.
The different threads in the story is nowhere to be found during the first 20-30 minutes. There are small little moments and key dialogue that starts to suggest what the actual plot is (I went in with basically no knowledge of it). Those moments are expertly hammered home by Ann and the viewer is right along for the slow ride that this movie is. I say slow because it truly is a slow-paced movie, consciously so. I don't know if this is a common trait for Hui-directed movies (Visible Secret did take its time though) but it's a fact in this one. The first scene clearly sets up the pace but since I'm an admirer of actors and directors I very rarely complain about this kind of thing. When I'm bored it's because of lack of quality filmmaking and with July Rhapsody we get the opposite. Therefore I had no problem whatsoever with the slowness. To further slow down the movie, in particular during the first half, there's quite a lot of scenes with few edits. I love seeing when actors take on larger chunks of dialogue and secondly I don't think Ann wanted to chop up the movie. If that had been done, the attention of the viewer could've been slightly less than it now is. Some sequences reaches the level of arty (but in an understandable way) and DP Kwan Pun-Leung (Lavender) handles that kind of stuff competently as well as the rest of the movie. We also get a very minimal but well-integrated score courtesy of Tommy Wai (Juliet In Love).
Popstars inhabit a lot of Hong Kong movies nowadays but starring in July Rhapsody are two veterans of that profession and acting for that matter. In Jacky Cheung's first scene I first saw the always fairly young looking actor and not the teacher Lam. If the illusion and believability in the character is not there then a film has lost it from the top already. Thankfully singer/actor Jacky Cheung soon is forgotten and teacher Lam is the only thing we see. Just like Andy Lau, Jacky has grown much as an actor and his return to leading roles after his break is a very good one. Anita Mui (still looking beautiful) gives us an equally good and understated performance as the wife. She's quiet and in the developing plot we come to understand her reasons and actions more. Newcomer Karena Lam becomes a star through this movie though. She shows great understanding of her character and not surprisingly she took home two statues at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year. She looks very innocent but both inside and outside Wu is a very smart teenager (as well as seductive), something that can be very true for troubled youths.
People talk about the crisis within Hong Kong cinema but the crisis isn't truly about the lack of good movies. The problem is that good movies doesn't take in the money at the box-office. Drama, unfortunately, isn't the genre that is going to save the industry but please continue to make excellent ones like July Rhapsody anyway.
The 1.85:1 transfer from Universe for the most part looks sharp and detailed but some scenes are plagued by softness and slight grain. Could've been a little better considering it's a recent film.
Audio comes in Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 and a Mandarin 2.0 dub. Being a very dialoguedriven movie most action takes place in the center. When the calm music kicks in, the front stage is very nicely used. Surrounds are used less frequently for this. Good mix.
The English subtitles are excellent but should've been placed entirely on the picture, not partly on the black widescreen border. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
Extras come in the form of Star's files for Derek Yee, Ann Hui, Jacky Cheung, Anita Mui and Karena Lam. In an odd movie Universe have only provided English files for Jacky and Anita and the rest are in Chinese only. Trailers for July Rhapsody, Inner Senses and Tiramisu are also on the disc.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson