Sea Root (1995)

Directed by: Lee Gwok Laap & Art Concept Creative Group
Written by: Raymond To
Producers: Michel Mak & Katie Chan
Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Alice Lau, Lee Fung, Yip Chun, Lee Kwok Cheung & Wu Fung

Root (Lau Ching Wan) works with his family on a fishing boat but the mother (Lee Fung - Remember M Remember E) has had her leg amputated and can not do her chores fully. Root and his cousin therefore go to the Mainland to buy an assistant and smuggle her illegally onto Hong Kong territory. That assistant is Lotus (Alice Lau), a loudmouthed girl who wants nothing but to see what's offered up in the city itself, despite the risk of being caught. Eventually she gets this chance and Root, who is hanging onto his past love, warms up to her. So much so that inspiration arises to go out and do something with his life, go and love someone else even...

Director Lee Gwok Laap had two small movie series (1*) started before turning to full on drama with Because Of Lies in 1995. Not much praise can be found connected to that Simon Yam vehicle but Sea Root has sneakily made its way into the higher grades over the years (2*). Thoroughly deservedly so and echoing other review quotes, this must be one of the most underrated films of 1995.

Raymond To once again gets Alice Lau to commit to his writing (3*) but the missing ingredient Clifton Ko (4*) does not so much feel missing in this production. Lee Gwok Laap and the Art Concept Creative Group (5*) are capable, in fact very capable of visualizing To's intentions which has less to do with nostalgia this time around, one of his pet themes. Completely universal, accessible and challenging at the same time, by planting the key word "gap" early on, committed audiences will most likely commit to subsequently dig deeper themselves while the film pleasantly rolls along without stopping to explain. Gap initially describes the desires of a younger generation to break out from the parental unit and the demands of it to carry on an age old line of livelihood, in this case fishing. It speaks both to a feeling of simply not wanting to but also genuine want to adept to an alternate path in life that the 90s can actually offer you.

In the middle of this, another key word surfaces, which is "stuck", applied mostly to Lau Ching Wan's Root but Raymond To's script offers up genuine surprises along the way that makes this drama take on not so much a deep meaning but a sincere, inspirational tone. Root, suffering from a stutter, feels more comfortable dwelling on the past, exchanging letters with his childhood sweetheart Yan who has emigrated to Canada and he feels no desire to literally go on shore to face the urban Hong Kong. You might think this is all due to a dedication to his family, which it is partly, but when the wild Lotus seed is planted (I.e. Alice Lau's character), a whole host of feelings and thematic strands open up, with heartwarming results.

The settings may vary throughout the film but as directed, the film takes the only course it should, and that is the point- and shoot one. Which is really an all too simple way to describe a technique but it is a fact that much of the time Sea Root sweeps you away due to this choice and creates an atmosphere where it's no longer actors on screen, it's character destinies. That is a rare feeling. Especially also since again Lee Gwok Laap and company are finely tuned storytellers who brings the utmost, clear nuances while still remaining subtle. That balance is also quite rare.

An aka for the film today in 2006 would have to be "Or why Lau Ching Wan was a god among actors...for a while once". It's not a knock because Lau occasionally nowadays gets the chance to showcase his presence, charisma and weight in films like Lost In Time but I do hope his lack of proper performances lately (6*) is a sign of not good enough material being out there. Then again, have Derek Yee and Johnnie To gotten tired of him? I assure you guys, the fans haven't. Relatively fresh from his breakout act in Derek Yee's C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, Lau here gives us an excellent behavioral act that is aiding the mentioned low-key yet telling direction.

The other Lau, Alice is in my mind one of the most unappreciated cinema queens of Hong Kong and her shining moments are out there in movies such as Farewell My Dearest, I Have A Date With Spring and here in Sea Root as well. Lotus is a wildflower, thoroughly infatuated with Hong Kong, its sights and Anita Mui but equally must learn life lessons. Lessons coming her way when she's learned Root to deal with his problems of the past. It's a feeling of superb warmth Lau brings at the best of times and mostly it's here in the second half. Strong support comes from Lee Fung and despite being relegated to few scenes, Wu Fung proves that every role matters.

Having changed direction and thought on cinema, Lee Gwok Laap, albeit briefly challenged the big boys such as Derek Yee in terms of being a prime dramatic storyteller capable of putting forth layers. Sea Root may stand as that sole prime achievement but the fact that you nail something once is not something you can put only in front of. Not even when five more people are sharing duties with you. Hong Kong cinema has an effort in this film that displays its uncanny strength of portraying the ordinary men and women, in ordinary cinematic ways, and still walk away as winners in the competition of fresh, felt cinema.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film in an 1.74:1 framed aspect ratio approximately. Sourced from a cinema print, detail is low and a certain smeary nature comes with the transfer. Print damage is infrequent, which is the best compliment and as fans of Hong Kong cinema knows, you learn to deal with sub-par sources. Mei Ah are seemingly not in a hurry to remaster this title either.

The Cantonese (with snippets of Mandarin) Dolby Digital 2.0 track has clear dialogue, effects and music. Not a challenge for any system but nice nonetheless. A 2.0 Mandarin dub is also included.

The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles contains minor grammar errors and they occasionally fade against background but overall very readable. Extras include trailers for Sea Root, Kids From Shaolin and a film identified as Zhou Enlai which I believe is actually the 1998 movie Zhou En Lai in China's. The Databank offers up the usual nothing (plot synopsis, cast & crew listing).

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) These were action oriented start-ups, namely Sting Of The Scorpion which was followed by Murders Made To Order. Lee also made On Parole and On Parole 2. Neither making much of a splash then and since.

(2) As is his felt, at least in my mind, Lover's Tears from 1996, starring Carman Lee and Derek Yee.

(3) Also see The Umbrella Story and One Of The Lucky Ones.

(4) Ko has in turn been the helm of Raymond To nostalgia scripts and Alice Lau vehicles such as I Have A Date With Spring and again, The Umbrella Story.

(5) It turns out that hiding behind Art Concept Creative Group are the following personnel: Raymond To, Chan Gin-Tak, Siu Ging-Gaai, Cheung Chan-Bong and Michel Mak. Amazing that the film comes appears as focused as it does, even if we have no record of how much percentage of the film was helmed by respective party. If all at the same time...well...quite the crowded set.

(6) Mainly comedies have been Lau's choices lately and the roster is not impressive:Three Of A Kind, Driving Miss Wealthy, The Attractive One and Himalaya Singh.