Farewell, China (1990)

Directed by: Clara Law
Written by: Eddie Fong
Producer: Anthony Chow
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-Fai & Hayley Man

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1991:
Best Picture
Best Director (Clara Law)
Best Screenplay (Eddie Fong)
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
Best Supporting Actress (Hayley Man)
Best New Artist (Hayley Man)
Best Cinematography (Jingle Ma)
Best Original Film Score (Shum Sing-Tak)

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1990:
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
Best Editing
Best Sound

For her third feature, Clara Law returns to a theme established in her debut work The Other 1/2 & The Other 1/2, that concerning the hardships of immigrants but throws out all Hong Kong comedy hinjinxs for a more detailed and harrowing look at the effects of the desperate striving for the needed life changes via immigration, in this case to America. If you want to look at Farewell, China as a criticism of America, you can. If you want to look at it as a political protest against the state of China, you can but Clara Law, together with writer Eddie Fong, at least not in a concrete way, do not seem to have an agenda. It's simply a very unfortunate tale that could've come from any cinema, dealing with any country and the same chilling results would've emerged.

Times of desperation sees out characters Hung (Maggie Cheung) and Zhao (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) organize a temporary separation, for a better life in America where Hung can obtain a high-class education as a stepping stone for the rest of her beloved ones to come over. Quickly things start to derail as mail correspondence suggest that Zhao should steer away from the land of the free and eventually, he loses track of her. We follow Zhao's journey via Mexico to New York where he goes from one seedy environment to another, trying to track Hung's steps. Aided by 15 year old runaway/prostitute Jane (Hayley Man), Zhao has someone to rely on but day by day, the surroundings are beginning to consume him and as we learn in the back and forth narrative, a similar thing might've happened to Hung...

It's not a pleasant 110 minutes Clara Law offers up so if you're allergic to characters getting into the most dire of circumstances that life can offer, then go somewhere else. The others, like me, take the punishment, resulting in self reflecting and that is really one of the big, great compliments given to Law's work here. Clever narrative touches makes us first criticize Maggie Cheung's Hung as she's seen mingling with the higher societies, having abandoned her distinctly Chinese heritage completely. The back and forth narrative holds character secrets though, much worth going through as a viewer. No matter how well Zhao and Hung have planned out their future, it's when faced with circumstances as an immigrant that you make your choices, which is very true to life. Characters need to resign to fate, whether good or bad and they make their difficult choices throughout the film, mostly very unpretty ones.

Yet Law's low-key handling of the material is very engrossing as cinema. Using static direction and natural cinematography by Jingle Ma, she is more than adept at letting the proceedings engage in spades through other things such as art direction and location shooting in the gritty sections of New York. Other clever touches are the potential detours into comedy, especially when we first see Zhao in New York complete with a sombrero from his tour of Mexico. Past revelations and those along the way for him and Hung contains little positives though and Law constantly comes back to the otherworldly back alleys of the city consuming dreams, hope and sanity. It's depressing as hell but excellent cinema for those who can take it.

Everyone appreciates great acting though and it's easy to take to heart and respect the dark performances on hand here. Tony Leung carries most of the movie and handles the well-rounded character of Zhao with utmost skill. A devoted husband turned stranger in a native country, Leung is natural in his reacting and desperate ways towards his environments, a subtle choice that heightens the needed reality of the performance. His chemistry with Hayley Man is something that couldn't have failed as they occupy so many sections of the film. A loudmouthed and rude teen girl, more potential derailing could've taken place if writer Eddie Fong hadn't taken the time to eventually give Jane some depth. Coming back to the sentence "resigned to your fate", she definitely has sunken into the role as a prostitute and wanderer, proclaiming happiness in her own way, but it's the age old thing of meeting Zhao, the one still striving to connect to family bliss for all eternity, that has the effect of opening her eyes. Newcomer Hayley Man is down with being a punk kid but gets strong dramatic beats to work with, something she handles very naturally.

Finally, Maggie Cheung logs one of her underrated performances or rather one of her hidden ones from this very prosperous time for her as an actress. It's genuinely intriguing to follow the on- and off exposure to her journey as it tells of equal hardships compared to Zhao but also that Hung eventually gets somewhere. However, Law doesn't make us certain of anything before the final reel, where some twists of life occur that will linger with you long after the finale frame. A daring role for the glamorous Cheung but it's not really surprising that she pulls it off so dependently either. The various Western actors do better than average also, especially compared to what we usually see in Hong Kong movies.

Clara Law proves with Farewell, China that no visual jazz is needed to tell a story, only perhaps a bit of optimism according to some viewers. The movie holds the questions of whether hope, love and a planned out future can survive away from the motherland. Where do you prosper the most and what do you settle with Law also asks and ultimately gives us several hints that true happiness is difficult to obtain. A fairly crowded thematic journey but Clara Law doesn't miss any beats and it's easy to be engaged despite a slow, low-key style and a destructive nature to the story. One can't really argue that it was overshadowed at the awards because a little film called Days Of Being Wild being in the way but no doubt, Farewell, China deserves a new spotlight now 15 years later.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in a 1.64:1 aspect ratio approximately. Despite the intended darkness of the film, colours are weak and darkness overall dominate. Print has mild wear but that does not distract.

Only the synch sound Cantonese/English (with a few scenes in Mandarin) Dolby Digital 2.0 track is included. Dialogue is mostly audible, save for a few of the English bits, and the atmospheric score sounds clear.

The English subtitles has a few spelling errors but are on the whole very good. The English dialogue is mostly untranslated. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available. The much better looking trailer is the sole extra.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson