Hu-Du-Men (1996)

Directed by: Shu Kei
Written by: Raymond To
Producer: Clifton Ko
Starring: Josephine Siao, Anita Yuen, Daniel Chan, Waise Lee, Chung Ging-Fai, Michelle Wong & David Wu

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Picture
Best Director (Shu Kei)
Best Screenplay (Raymond To)
Best Actress (Josephine Siao)
Bets Supporting Actress (Anita Yuen)
Best New Artist (Daniel Chan)
Best Editing (Shu Kei & Kwong Chi-Leung)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1997:
Film Of Merit

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1996:
Best Actress (Josephine Siao)

The term Hu-Du Men is described in Cantonese opera as the imaginary line between reality and stage. When crossed onto the stage, only you as the character is allowed to exist. Josephine Siao plays Sum, a veteran opera performer that has specialized in playing male roles throughout her career. Her life outside of the interaction with the troupe is troubled however. Her husband is planning emigration to Australia, a discussion Sum avoids as best she can while their daughter's friendship with Jojo may run deeper than the father is willing to accept. Also within the opera troupe, tensions are running high as a new director (David Wu) is imposing changes plus the taking on of new talent Yuk-Sheung (Anita Yuen) will tear up past wounds of Sum's...

A box office hit, for a drama, at the time of release and coming from an acclaimed team of cast & crew with movies such as Temptress Moon, The Mad Phoenix, Forever And Ever, C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, Shanghai Blues and Made In Hong Kong behind them, this is simply one you can't shy away from having high expectations of! And yea, it is terrific!

Hu-Du-Men becomes yet another adaptation of a Raymond To stage play (also see The Mad Phoenix), wonderfully sprung to life by the core team of To himself, Clifton Ko and director Shu Kei, employing a razor sharp naturalistic eye to character relationships. A mature and well-performed package that echoes issues connected to you and me and expectedly, any initial setup will be familiar for you cliché-hunters out there! Rest assured also, no deep cultural knowledge of Cantonese opera is needed as the opening captions explaining the concept of the Hu-Du-Men line provides us with everything we need.

As with some of the best dramas out of Hong Kong in the 90s, Hu-Du-Men isn't structured as a powerful hand gripping you from frame one. Even when trekking towards the halfway point, Shu Kei hasn't even touched upon the main themes of the story but it's a beauty of the film as it's an evolving thematic concerning many complex issues that will interest the actual interested, patient viewers easily.

A very telling poster art provides the teaser of Raymond To's penned intentions, mainly that of characters being lost in their search of a true identity. Sum's choices in life have learnt her to respect the Hu-Du-Men line but in actuality she's not as connected as she should be to her reality due to unresolved issues and regrets of the past. Having played men in operas for so long, she even adapts a certain behavior out of touch with the female that she is, which makes her a very quirky and funny character. Grating even, but the filmmakers in this case clearly are above lame comedy. Sum is not comfortable in her own body and thwarts away responsibility by simply being divided in terms of the which side of the line to stand on. When the issues of her daughter's homosexuality, married life and the distant feeling of motherhood are revealed, it's also the moment where Shu Kei firmly grips us and seals the quality of the movie.

But Shu Kei and company does not exactly praise any character choices. Every decision on hand comes with a consequence of not desired nature but it's about accepting a choice while still having the opportunity to perhaps redeem the negative ramifications of that later on. That becomes Sum's plight, her husband Chan's plight, the daughters and just about every character is covered through these understated emotions. It's a tour de force for Shu Kei as he's one that knows how to highlight the crucial characteristics, not the entire life arc, to great effect. Add on to that splendid cinematography by Bill Wong (Rouge) and a restrained but highly suitable score by Otini Yoshihide (Summer Snow).

Through Josephine Siao, every facet to Sum, quirky or not, results in an amazing emotional performance. Siao also displays her comedic chops that was so memorably highlighted in fan favourite Fong Sai Yuk. Anita Yuen is a supporting player here and it's just my adoration for her that results in a slight disappointment as her screentime and magic that she can bring is limited here. But still, she's an integral character for Shu Kei but C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri fans won't find a new favourite. Newcomer David Chan acts like one but it's again an example of being backed by a great visionary that makes his presence needed and integral. He just has to show up, be his young self and by god, it works fine. Waise Lee has also come a long way since his overacting days in Bullet In The Head, logging a memorable supporting performance as a key member of the opera troupe.

Despite being overshadowed by Comrades, Almost A Love Story at the awards, Shu Kei's Hu-Du-Men easily qualifies as one of the best Hong Kong movies from 1996. The underrated Raymond To and Clifton Ko team brings us yet another thoughtful play in movie format, brought to life by Shu Kei in a natural and human way. Without the superb center in the form of Josephine Siao, the filmmakers might've gotten places but not to places of nigh on perfection. She owns!

The DVD:

Part of Mei Ah's ongoing remastering of their back catalogue, Hu-Du Men has been giving a respectful facelift. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, print damage and at times fairly heavy grain is degrading the transfer when it does appear. Otherwise the remastered print sports good colours and sharpness.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono option sounds clear with the heavy percussion during the opera scenes coming to life well in the limited soundfield. Cantonese 5.1 and Mandarin 2.0 options are also included.

The English subtitles has a few errors but are on the whole helpful and well worded. The English dialogue is left untranslated, which is usually not the case with Hong Kong films. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

The worthless Mei Ah Data Bank (containing the plot synopsis, cast & crew listing and a poorly spelled explanation of the term Hu-Du-Men) is the only extra.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson