Portland Street Blues (1998)

Directed by: Raymond Yip
Written by: Manfred Wong & Ye Nianchen
Producer: Manfred Wong
Starring: Sandra Ng, Kristy Yeung, Alex Fong, Ng Man Tat, Vincent Wan & Shu Qi

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Best Actress (Sandra Ng)
Best Supporting Actress (Shu Qi)

Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Best Supporting Actress (Kristy Yeung)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1999:
Best Actress (Sandra Ng)

Portland Street Blues is a spin off of the popular Young & Dangerous film series where the character of Sister 13 had a role in part number 5 and she was also played there by Sandra Ng. In this film it's just her and her past that is focused on though. The plot itself doesn't take up to much space since it's basically a bio pic where we mostly in flashback follow Sister 13 from being a young teenager on the streets of Hong Kong to a well respected and also lesbian triad boss.

Raymond Yip has directed a movie that, on the surface and the dvd cover, looks like another movie in the pretty much tired triad movie genre but the fact that he chooses to focus on a woman makes this project more interesting. In the beginning we get a short introduction to Sister 13's present day life as a female triad and her face projects an assurance but we're also seeing a slight inner sadness that we at that point don't know anything about.

During a ceremony for the day of death of her father (Ng Man Tat from Shaolin Soccer) Sister 13 begins to tell some of her followers the story about her father and this leads into the movies flashback, a place were we're going to be at for the majority of the running time. We see her father as a slightly retarded man who spends most of his time at the triad gambling tables. He seems like an easy victim for harassment but he doesn't care as long as he can provide money for him and his daughter (called Teenie in this part of the film). The goal for him is to have them out of the shady streets into a more high standard way of life. In this very long flashback we follow Teenie through teenage crushes, hustling and the eventual tragic death of her father and director Yip doesn't really rush things here. He slowly lays the foundation of the present lives of some of our characters and at first I got a little frustrated because I wasn't at all aware of the structure of this movie. The audience I think expected to be in and out of the flashback faster but that is actually not a criticism, it's just caught me off guard. There are however a few select scenes that falls flat, in particular the scene where Matt Chow attempts to employ the sex services of Kristy Yeung's character, which is actually in on the money stealing scheme orchestrated by Teenie. In this scene some really tame comedy sneaks in and Matt's role is really a thankless one too. The comedy especially doesn't reflect well against the more serious and violent scenes later on. Thankfully this is basically the only bad thing and we're soon on the right track again.

Raymond Yip really ventures into risky territory when he does a short flashback within the current one. It is when Shu Qi's character tells Teenie about the events that led up to her drug addiction but since it is a short look back, it doesn't take us out of the movie. We know where we are in time and the director handles this with ease it seems. The further the movie goes on the better all aspects of the movie also becomes. The choosen camera direction is more of a documentary style with a slightly floating camera that rarely imposes on the action and the characters. This is a good way of telling this story but not the most exciting directing you'll ever see though. That is again not meant as a negative thing but certain viewers may want some more 'zing' to their movies and they ain't getting it here. It's a fairly small story and the means you use to tell it shouldn't be bigger in my opinion.

Manfred Wong and Ye Nianchen's screenplay is pretty well structured and probably worked as a good blueprint for director Yip when he was doing the jumps between time. The dialogue is maybe not the best ever written but again it's an element that works good in the movie. Somewhere in the back of my head I somehow think that with lesser known or skilled actors, these words and actions would end up being worse on screen. An aspect I thought worked very well was the few violent moment sprinkled throughout the film. It's not an action piece as such but these scenes worked thanks to the dark mood and sense of doom Raymond Yip manages to convey. It's also much down to the fact that we know and care about some of the characters and we don't want to see any harm done to them. The mood itself isn't anything we haven't seen before but Raymond pulls it off without approaching familiar cliché ridden territory.

The love triangle, in the later part of the flashback, between Teenie, Yun and Coke (Alex Fong) is a thing that did feel like it wasn't fully successful. While Raymond Yip puts forward the emotions that was needed I feel that it should've been bigger somehow but not to the point of being way too sentimental. Instead it felt like a low in the direction and it truly felt like I had seen it before.

Through the present and past parts of the film we see Sandra Ng as our main character. As an older woman she has no problem becoming the part but in the beginning of the flashback bulk of the movie I got a little worried. Sandra is meant to play a teenage version of Sister 13 and it did feel like it was going to be hard to accept her like that. Of course you can't conceal Sandra's real age like that but thanks to her excellent acting we quickly forget about any questioning of age. She is much more lively and naive and living out her youth on the streets of Hong Kong. That and everything needed of her to show in terms of character is without a doubt expertly handled by Sandra. It's always a good sign when you forget the actor and feel like you're watching the character. The amazing thing is when we return to the present day we're more accustomed to the young Teenie and we're still seeing a bit of the youthful Teenie hidden in there somewhere. All in all, Sandra was worthy of the HKFA award given to her that year.

Portland Street Blues is an ensemble piece and therefore I won't comment on all the actors in the main ensemble. The entire cast however felt so right, in other words everyone down to the smallest part felt like they were really part of the world around Portland Street. For example Vincent Wan's (from Ebola Syndrome) bit part as one of Sister 13's closest men is not a hugely important part but boy did his presence click with this movie. The more bigger parts played by Kristy Yeung and Alex Fong will not receive any complaints from me either. I especially liked Alex Fong's subtle and quiet performance. His character is not one that's showing any huge emotions, which could either mean that he can't easily show his true feelings or that he's hiding something.

Shu Qi has a very emotional and sentimental part that sometimes award juries 'fall' for but I'm not trying to come off as the biggest cynic in the world here. I always thought Shu Qi was a pretty face but acting wise she wasn't going to to amount to very much. Here however she gains some respect and tries her hardest to get approval by the critics and so forth. We're not seeing the beautiful and glamorous Shu Qi but a drug addict and emotionally hurt human being and it was indeed brave of her to take on this role. I don't know who she was nominated against but the fact that she got the Best Supporting Actress award doesn't feel completely unfair. Special mention has to to John Ching who really seems to enjoy playing the sleazy and completely unsympathetic character Brother SOB.

The story in the present day towards the end of the movie feels kind of out of place with this movie and feels like a cheap and common ending to a triad movie. It has connections to what we've seen in the flashback but is executed in a way that has been seen many times before. It's logical but Raymond Yip has shown so much talent in the other parts of this story that the ending felt disappointing. That the cast of characters in the Young & Dangerous films walks on the scene right at the end also felt forced and was probably only there to remind people about the universe in which the movie takes place in. It didn't feel at all necessary and the final frame of the movie where Sandra and the entire gang fills the entire widescreen frame took me out of the drama of the movie.

Despite that misjudgment at the end there are still lots to recommend about Portland Street Blues. It works on its own and doesn't really need to be connected with the Young & Dangerous series. A great performance by Sandra Ng plus a list of other good character actors makes this drama well worth a buy.

The DVD:

Universe's presents the movie in what seemed more closely to 1.90:1 to me. The picture quality is ok for this 1998 production. Damages to the print are kept to a minimum but I thought a general softness plagued the picture. It's perfectly watchable though and Universe rarely gives us anything less than that.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is good and makes use of all speakers to average effect. I say that because I thought the mix was a bit too aggressive on ambient sounds on a few occasions. It's nothing that will detract from the listening experience but it's still worth mentioning. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles are at times quite good but also sometimes pretty bad in terms of grammatical errors. The content is there but some choice of wording was pretty awful. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also provided. Again Universe has choosen to put part of the subtitles on the black border and I wish they would be more consistent in this area since some of their titles have subs that appear on the picture frame only.

Extras consists of the theatrical trailer and star files for Sandra Ng, Kristy Yeung and Shu Qi

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson