My Mother Is A Belly Dancer (2006)
Directed by: Lee Kung-Lok
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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2007:
Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2006:
Mrs Lee (Sydney) is a housewife with a dominant husband (Ken Tong) that has little interest in raising their son (Howard Sit - Wait 'Til You're Older) in a unified parental manner. The father gladly spoils the kid without him deserving rewards and left in the background is the wife to do her duty. Mrs Chan (Amy Chum) finds out that her husband has turned to someone younger and prettier but decides to keep up appearances. Mrs Wong (Crystal Tin - Superkid) works as a garbage lady but when laid off doesn't reveal it to her husband (Gordon Lam - Election 2). Cherry (Monie Tung) is a young mother who would rather fool around than actually take on the required role and these women carrying burdens will soon begin uniting as sisters when they all take belly dancing classes, lead by Pasha (Pasha Umer Hood)...
I like story templates that would be considered off-beat or at least on paper not destined to mean anything if approached in a serious manner. Or approached as a comedy or, or or... Hong Kong cinema have a little master of that currently whose name is Edmond Pang but within Andy Lau's "FOCUS: First Cuts" program, the next director given a chance to breakthrough or evolve is Lee Kung-Lok. Working from Helen Wong and Erica Li's script (who also co-wrote Men Suddenly In Black, with and for Edmond Pang), Lee received critical acclaim for the independent feature Fu Bo but him and his co-director Wong Ching-Po went separate ways. Wong was touted as the next big thing only to find out he wasn't able to show anything but his own inconsistencies as a filmmaker (represented by the visually arresting but shallow Jiang Hu and Ah Sou) while Lee Kung-Lok in certain places received a co-directing credit on All About Love. Without much notice though. Joining forces again, with Wong co-producing, My Mother Is A Belly Dancer plows new, exciting roads ahead for the new filmmakers by looking at characters who have lived longer. Although it's actually characters that have been forced to resign to fate but thankfully these characters will come to know there's life to be had well into it. Lee Kung-Lok's tribute to the mother's of our world is a blessing to a Hong Kong cinema scene few dare to touch and you know what, you're still in the wrong for not doing that. And it's not even quirky or off-beat by the way!
With a centerpiece in the form of the tower block of apartments seen so many times in Hong Kong films but this time captured on video, Lee with new and extraordinarily talented cinematographer Jason Kwan knows a grainy, gritty nature to the surroundings is not needed for a story that is about injecting colours, figuratively. Then video can have its shortcomings too if you don't do anything with it but rarely, if ever, does Kwan make a disturbance factor out of the video look of the film. In fact, the "FOCUS: First Cuts" movies have made sure to feature the positive dimensions of the medium. Moving away from the technical aspect and into the core which is very character-driven, Lee greatly involves in his methodic way of creating reality on screen. Static yet spellbinding in his subtle, in-tune style, here's a story that transcends cultural boundaries very easily. Having different characters deal with the card currently dealt to them, structurally much is to be considered a trap to fall into for any filmmaker. But Lee's subjects are very much real, that's his solution in order to avoid that trap. Either housewives with no power to wield, housewives experiencing betrayal, housewives not communicating out of irrational fear or a youth turning away from motherhood, it could be looked upon as a strange choice to have the traditional belly dancing of Turkish and Arabic flavour as a tool for these females to find respective definition again (or for the first time). Director Lee is successful in arguing that it's a perfectly healthy plot aspect to channel these concerns through.
The notion of "See Lai" (Cantonese slang for this kind of aging housewife) gets a multi-faceted characterization as there are those going through the motions and those enjoying being what they are, on the cocky surface that is. A few pitfalls Lee is dangerously close of falling into comes early as his structural choice of being non-linear and symbolic at many points instead feels like an unfocused, scattershot movie during the first few reels (being symbolic and LARGE works for him at the end though). The belly dancing classes enter quite early and especially the young mother Cherry seems to be in the film all of a sudden at a point. But it's thoroughly rewarding to stick with My Mother Is A Belly Dancer because slowly it very much begins to make sense. As does the reality of our characters trying to feel warmth again.
These different arcs are about high mountains to climb for each character. The power of being categorized as a "See Lai" is so disturbingly immersed into society that literally an entire community turn their backs on those few willing to make their relationships akin to fruitful and living a little. Places and positions are taken for granted and again, the movie says welcome to anyone in the world when addressing these points. There's no argument, rightly so, that these roles are about making your colours fade but most men in the film are blind and happy to make their wives their household item. With an arresting visual style that throws splashes of colour into the proceedings at suitable points, the uphill battle for each character is very involving and never ever does Lee threaten to let his love for the frame take over concerns of character. In fact, characters are the ones he loves in his frame where he distributes strength, vulnerability and hurt that's works itself up to status of cinematic magic quietly but also in outbursts.
It's some of those outbursts that makes the movie take some detours out of reality. Certainly the portrayal of some men is quite one-sided and an overly conscious part of a structure where changes also take place way too conveniently. But mostly the screen is filled with superb warmth from any gender portrayed, especially so in Gordon Lam's case who doesn't wear his frustrations as an unemployed husband on his sleeve but instead displays support for his wife's struggle who finds herself in the middle of unemployment turmoil. It's an encouraging portrayal where love may not mean constant rolling around in bed but creating your future, setting an example for your kid's future and challenging conventions set in stone by the surroundings. The ensemble cast is otherwise also terrific, even down to the youth case of Cherry as embodied by Monie Tung. Sydney dones a character design of utmost clarity where it's communicated so clearly how her position in the family affects her while Amy Chum as a genuinely beautiful but overly made up old lady handles the betrayal her character faces with an admirable touch. Further warmth comes from a three scene cameo by Lam Tsz-Chung (Kung Fu Hustle and director of I'll Call You, also for "FOCUS: First Cuts") as a self-appointed caretaker for Cherry's baby.
Finally, the conduit and tool that triggers the challenging change in our women is Pasha Umer Hood who embodies the inspiration needed and very much becomes a representation of how Lee Kung-Lok's drama does the same for Hong Kong cinema. Another treasure in Andy Lau's very bright idea that became "FOCUS: First Cuts", My Mother Is A Belly Dancer does slip into too expected conventions at times but that weakness is still above average content in a movie that does so many things right, including making itself up to be attractive to boot! Rightly preaching that you shouldn't allow yourself to accept a role that extinguishes your inner flame, Lee Kung-Lok's detailed, meticulous direction of all this remains the ultimate inspiration for My Mother Is A Belly Dancer. An experience with heart, professionalism and huge possibility to draw in those never looking at Hong Kong for this content. Even if that doesn't change (and you're STILL wrong), I know I'm happy artistic quality can still find a place outside of the commercial machine. Andy Lau realized this must be a way.
IVL presents the film in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The Digital Video transfer is obviously free of damage and presents detail and colours quite well.
Sole audio option is a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.
The English subtitles read well and doesn't contain any incoherence whatsoever. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
A small array of movie-specific extras appear outside of the standard "FOCUS: First Cuts" content. The trailer for My Mother Is A Belly Dancer start things off and following is a 2 minute, 36 second Making Of (Chinese subtitled only). Quick shots of camera setups and director Lee Kung-Lok at work is worthwhile but obviously nothing of substance happens and the 10 image strong Photo Gallery is a one-time watch too.
FOCUS: First Cuts Showreel touts the project at hand, bombastically, and briefly promotes the films involved while a host of trailers for the other movies within the project (I'll Call You, The Shoe Fairy, Love Story, Crazy Stone and Rain Dogs) finishes off the disc. A postcard with either a Chinese language director's statement or Lee's story of women in his life that can be read on the "FOCUS: First Cuts" website is located in the dvd case. Back also shows a shot of Lee together boss Andy Lau.
Visit focusfirstcuts.com for an overview of the project, director's statements and much more.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson