American Grandson (1991)

Directed by: Ann Hui
Written by: Wu Nien-Jen
Producers: Faan Gin-Gung & Wong Fooi-Bik
Starring: Wu Ma, Wong Kwan-Yuen, Wang Lai, Suen Paang & Carina Lau

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Retired teacher Ku (Wu Ma) lives a quiet but routine based life. There's cracks underneath the surface that speaks to a sadness towards such a life and his cherished ones are leaving his life sphere one by one. A chance to get high spirited again arises when his grandson from America, Gu Ming (Wong Kwan-Yuen - All About Ah Long) is set to stay with Ku and his family for a little while. The highly Westernized kid isn't the easiest one to please however...

In anticipation of the Ann Hui and Chow Yun-Fat reunion in The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt, we turn to her little mentioned 1991 drama that doesn't star Chow. I personally do not quite have the pulse on people's dislike of Ann Hui's work but in American Grandson, there's evidence of someone just a little bit too comfortable and confident in their particular skill of filmmaking. I can look at static shots all day but along with cinematographer Mark Lee (1*), Hui gives us a first reel that has many shots but ones devoid of concrete themes, meaning or even importance. Eventually a character spells out the troubled insides of Wu Ma's Kuo but when doing so, the word forced comes to mind. You can't expect art to shape itself as soon as you say action. Hui unfortunately displays that here, initially.

Going into what American Grandson in fact is about, there is a worthwhile thematic template opened up in Wu Nien-Jen's script by Hui. Ku seems full of life but his daily routines of exercise, buying fish, falling asleep in front of the TV, they all have to do with a dissatisfaction. One that's about feelings of not just growing old but outgrowing his closest ones. One is Carina Lau's Tao Li, Ku's niece who takes care of him every once in a while but he won't let her go, showcasing desperate traits regarding this (an early scene where he consciously turns his room upside down in order for her to spend time tidying up is heartfelt). Something needs to be done in order for him to let go and appreciate his current place in the giant board game of life. Enter the titular american grandson for a continuation of said themes.

Ann Hui's almost trademark social commentary rears its head through the presence of Gu Ming, an Americanized Chinese but for Ku, it's a chance to stay put in development and find another loved one to attach himself to. Not easy when having to deal with arrogance, ignorance and the culture clash is a fact. Through the real images of Shanghai as captured by Mark Lee, Hui finds her best flow when dealing with the at first tough going bonding of Ku and Gu Ming that then develops expectedly the other way. The thoughts are definitely sincere but this reviewer was juggling his notes between mild critique of the message of the film being...well, too mild. Or suitably subdued. In the end it's something in between.

Hui's critique of America and praising of the Chinese real spirit is not overdone as such and thankfully develops into the middle ground message that we should exchange our cultural learnings in a constructive way. But there's not great substance on display, only minor thoughts in a natural looking package, which is not the worst thing you can ever find. Many filmmakers can and wants to think but can't find the needed gloss to make those thoughts bloom. American Grandson clearly is Hui's platform but this time there's really not much to say.

Neither very touching or unexpected therefore, we still get worthwhile performances. Wu Ma has the character image nailed before even being cast and displays no problems adjusting to Ann Hui's tone of filmmaking. Wong Kwan-Yuen was always a welcome, natural presence in Hong Kong cinema. He displays that here but his pretty awful English dubbing doesn't do him any favours, especially not in emotional moments. He definitely shares his best celluloid time with Wu Ma when there's little to be talked about. Carina Lau's place in the narrative is consciously subdued but way too much so that I was left wondering why a role that seemingly screams importance due to the casting choice was ever needed. She is a part of the puzzle but not allowed to be integral, which is a bit of a shame.

Ann Hui usually don't go bombastic on us which is always welcome and through that choice in American Grandson, she reveals internal meaning but even an 82 minute running time doesn't seem to be easily filled. We get the sincerity and message about letting yourself go into adulthood and growing old but I've had larger effects inflicted upon me before and since in Hui's movies. She even goes super-melodramatic on us during a character farewell at the end, perhaps knowing that few felt gripped. In fact, it doesn't make a difference.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.81:1 approximately. Print has minor wear only and seems typical for a budget release. Meaning clarity and colours ends up on decent, without standing out.

Taking place in Shanghai, the film seems suited for the Mandarin/English Dolby Digital 2.0 selection. Aside from some pops and cracks evident, we get a clear sounding track. A Cantonese/English 2.0 option is also included.

Problems with spelling, grammar and timing seem plague the English subtitles but they can be followed without much problems. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available. Only extra is the trailer (bearing the title My American Grandson and contains quite a lot of deleted footage).

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Also a Hui collaborator in that capacity on Summer Snow and Eighteen Springs.