Glass Tears (2001)

Directed by: Carol Lai
Written by: Carol Lai & Lai Ho
Producer: Joe Ma
Starring: Zeny Kwok, Lo Lieh, Tsui Tin-Yau, Carrie Ng & Tats Lau

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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2002:
Best New Artist (Zeny Kwok)

Glass Tears sees us happily saying hello to the new and sadly saying goodbye to the old. Hello as in welcoming a new, talented directing voice to Hong Kong cinema and saying goodbye to the legendary Lo Lieh, as this was his last performance before he past away on November 2nd, 2002.

15 year old Cho have run away from home and her parents (Carrie Ng & Tats Lau) seemingly unable to do anything themselves turn to Cho's grandfather, retired Mainland cop Wu (Lo Lieh) for help to search the streets of Hong Kong for her. He is aided by young girl P (Zeny Kwok) who claims she is Cho's loan shark, but in reality is as lost as Cho is. P and Wu do not get along easily at first due to age difference and views on the world and respect. It's soon apparent though that both share feelings of loneliness inside their hearts and an uncommon bond is founded between them.

Disillusion is the key theme here and it's easy to draw comparisons with Made In Hong Kong and Spacked Out while still safely saying that Carol Lai has made a drama that she can proudly call her own. This time it's not just the abandoned youths that is focused on but also what justly can be claimed to be the cause of that state, the adults, and it's here the even older generation in this case steps up.

There's always the two feelings of excitement and frustration that can set in when examining a work that's only been discussed sparsely. Questions revolve in your head regarding the directions we're heading but I'm glad to say Lai early on firmly plants a feeling of excitement. Once again, Hong Kong cinema's strength of theme portrayal in its simplicity and how that can weave movie magic is on display thanks to Lai's carefully measured work. Not that niggles are hard to find, because they are in there and in retrospect, one of her crucial character introductions really is totally off, that of Zeny Kwok's P. She is seen randomly assaulting a woman but when we get to know her, she's clearly a street-girl, doing drugs, living a loose lifestyle but not in any way that violent! Lai's point is clear, that of youths completely having derailed, but it's too much. Thankfully, we're soon smoothly integrated into a low-key character drama between two different people from much different generations, and this is where Lai's instincts flourish fully.

It's been said by filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson that you as a director need to do very little if you've done your homework at the writing stage. Even two people simply talking within one frame can be mesmerizing if you've provided performers with the goods to work with. For Glass Tears, it is simply a marvelously spellbinding time at the movies as Zeny Kwok and Lo Lieh walk around Hong Kong, in a search of Cho and dueling it out psychologically. She's clearly someone who thinks she can dominate him by claiming he's nothing but Wu at the same time commands respect in so many ways, leading to a very poignant part of the movie where P realize she needs backing, a lifeline if you will, to survive even alone. A little girl is still a little girl, something she learns, and subsequently the basic, but very important lesson of respecting your elders. Wu may not be a perfect character with a lifetime of perfect choices but his frustration with the environment around him is valid. As is his harsh ways of shaking life into various characters either in the form of violence or simply setting them straight through dialogue.

No dialogue exists between the husband and wife and boy what a black, drab section of this film is. Bleakness can in worst case, believe it or not, borderline on cartoonish if not planted in a frame that exudes reality but thankfully Carrie Ng and Tats Lau's characters do reside in one. They're balancing their lives on that very last thin thread and are so much going through the motions that no action is taken on their behalf when their daughter runs away. You certainly don't blame the daughter for wanting to break out or being molded into what she is and even though the marriage lack anything resembling love, a scene in the movie reveals a fear on the wife's behalf of being left behind as she follows Tats Lau's character around Hong Kong. Also ones that need a jolt and and a wake-up call. A much accomplished and restrained section of the film, these performers live up to the writing and works in tune with the understated nature of Carol Lai and Lai Ho's writing.

And Lai continues to plant these themes and happenings in a simple, subtle frame, mostly devoid of arthouse sensibilities although they're largely overindulgent when they do hit. Characters are developed enough to get us going and built throughout to make us move forward, and Lai's basic direction is some of the most rewarding in movies when done right. Yet, it's not perfect as the the latter reel demonstrates.

I don't blame Lai for wanting to spend time herself and wanting us to spend time with P and Wu but she sacrifices good pacing when doing that. It basically feels like 2 or 3 scenes too many with them and there are already established developments so those scenes are only screen-time filler. Also, Tsui Tin-Yau's character seems to have no place in this narrative, other than to be a male youth sidekick. I can see Lai later establishing through him that these youths are not only aimless, disillusioned but rather stupid but I didn't need an additional character to tell me that. The surrounding ones communicated that well enough already. Carol Lai learnt not to indulge as much for her sophomore effort The Floating Landscape but instead that came with flaws that made the movie less real than I wanted. But hey, with this much talent, and not in any way in sporadic bursts, already brewing, Carol has a bright future, at least critically.

Talking acting, newcomer Zeny Kwok is one of those rough talents that fits in with the streets her character is inhabiting, having adopted a street-smart sensibility but still being a dependent little girl. She shares an easy going chemistry with Shaw Brother's veteran, the late Lo Lieh that again makes Glass Tears for the majority of the proceedings, a really spellbinding, simple experience. One that Lo Lieh should be largely credited for as he brings both coolness, warmth, anger and heart, giving us a spot on last performance. There's no doubt that he dominates every frame he's in but thankfully not overpowering his fellow young actors. It can be said in several paragraphs but I'll leave it at this:

We miss you Lo Lieh.

Carol Lai's Glass Tears certainly remains a very solid debut work with touches of great character drama that remains suitably simply executed. While not perfect all throughout, there's much to be swept away by in the story about old and young not so much colliding but reaching a common, and unexpected understanding about themselves. Both uplifting and tragic, on screen and behind it, Glass Tears is a splendid finale for one of the greatest, Lo Lieh and a quality start for what perhaps will be one of the great ones as well, Carol Lai.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film framed at 1.78.1 approximately. The conscious muted colours are fairly well presented although contrast seems boosted too much. Print is very clean and sharpness fair.

The Cantonese 2.0 Dolby Digital track presents clear dialogue and fine front channel separation for music. The track is actually a mixture of Cantonese, Mandarin and Mandarin accented Cantonese, as far as I could hear. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.

The English subtitles feature no apparent grammar or spelling errors. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Aside from the usual crappy Mei Ah Databank (can't be said enough times), giving us plot synopsis and cast & crew listing, there's also actual extras in section called Footage, all with permanent Chinese subtitles only though.

First up are interviews with director/co-writer Carol Lai (6 minutes, 21 seconds) and actress Zeny Kwok (2 minutes, 8 seconds) followed by the making of (2 minutes, 49 seconds). The latter can be enjoyed sans English translation but is really just a few minutes worth of vaguely interesting behind the scenes footage. In Cannes 2001 (5 minutes) shows the events surrounding Glass Tears participation at the Cannes Film Festival. We get glimpses of the press junkets for the cast & crew and the premiere.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson