The Longest Summer (1998)

Written & directed by: Fruit Chan
Producer: Daniel Yu
Starring: Tony Ho, Sam Lee, Jo Kuk, Chan Sang, Pang Yick Wai & Lai Chi Ho

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Best Picture
Best Director (Fruit Chan)
Best Screenplay (Fruit Chan)
Best Supporting Actor (Sam Lee)
Best New Artist (Tony Ho)
Best New Artist (Jo Kuk)
Best Original Film Score (Lam Wah-Chuen & Bat Kwok-Chi)
Best Original Song: Hui nin yin fa dut bit nor (The Longest Summer)
Music & lyrics: Lam Wah-Chuen
Performed by: Andy Lau

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1999:
Film Of Merit

Continuing with his 1997 theme that started with Made In Hong Kong the year before, Fruit Chan brings us a sad portrayal of a few Hong Kong citizen's deterioration in the face of the coming handover from Great Britain to China.

A band of British Army soldiers attend their resignation ceremony, a few months before the handover. Demoted to "ordinary" citizens, not only the Hong Kong people look down upon these trained only soldiers, but the job market is a dire one. Leader Ga Yin (Tony Ho) and his brother Ga Guen (Sam Lee) do get jobs with the triads but brewing between the fellow soldiers is a dissatisfaction with how things are and how things will be going. A decision is made to go ahead and realize the idea of a bank robbery, utilizing their army background. As luck would have it, another unknown gang is keen on the same idea and after the ensuing gunfight on location of the robbery, Ga Yin and his troops end up with the booty and an unwelcome masked guest during the getaway...

While much more straightforward in the visual style department, meaning less arthouse, if anything this is an even more difficult film than Made In Hong Kong was. The blood splattered poster art clearly indicate that someone, down the line, is going to get hurt but Chan surprises us with a varied narrative, ranging from one resembling your general heist thriller to an understated character portrayal. It's therefore not always the smoothest of ride for the unprepared but The Longest Summer is still an achievement on many levels (even the rewatch level).

Stylized imagery in the prologue explains to us where in the timeline these soldiers were dismissed from the British Army and for the first hour, Chan is concentrating on the months leading up to July 1st (date of the handover) and how Britain and Hong Kong are treating those whose sole purpose now lies in the hands of no one else but themselves. This small band of ex-soldiers, who's never seen any action, basically start from scratch and following the main one of Ga Yin, his honorable nature still leads him, as described in the film, to one foot in the underworld. While writer/director Chan never makes the issue of hopelessness before the handover an highly melodramatic aspect of this section of the film, nonetheless, these individuals know one thing only and that they're going to put to use in order to make what they consider to be the desired changes. Even when their families has begun living by the mantra of obtaining money quick is the only option, it's clearly down to one last, desperate act for these characters.

That's approaching the conclusion of The Longest Summer's first hour that, as mentioned, does take cue from the heist thriller and even consists of a smaller action set piece. However at almost 130 minutes, Chan clearly have something else up his sleeve and it's not about elaborating on the crime that's just occurred. In his world, even with the conflict of the gang that actually performed the robbery, getting away from the police will occur but the aftermath is handled in an manner which I didn't expect and I began to question Chan's motives for dragging out the story as much as he did.

The Longest Summer enters something more akin to documentary territory and Chan and crew clearly went out beforehand and caught some shots of the actual events and celebrations around this beginning part of July 1997. Not only does the relatively low-budget get a bigger scope, it also put us the viewer, be it a Hong Kong one or a Westerner, in the middle of the true reactions of the handover and for a section here, being unprepared for where Chan goes, I got increasingly confused. On top of that, it's not because of any arthouse stylization or anything!

Mostly continuing to concentrate on Ga Yin, we see the more disturbing and depressing aspect of having nowhere to go in this new Hong Kong society and while it takes a while to catch up with Chan, he finally nails his intentions and messages by the end, creating a very sad picture of Hong Kong but one that's probably not unfair in regards to the handling by the ruling forces that now took over. It took a while for me to decipher it all but Chan has let the characters go through changes, in both compelling and depressing ways and sometimes a combination of both!

Chan continued to cast new talent as he did with Made In Hong Kong, this time led by Tony Ho, who's already possessing a veteran look, being slightly older. He carries the film well, going through the phases of a solid leader with a code of nobility to one whose illusions of the world does break down. It's a strongly balanced performance. Sam Lee again continues to build on his natural acting ability, being the loose cannon of the group and another newcomer, a personal favourite of mine by now, Jo Kuk makes a definite impact through not only her beauty but determined presence. Rightly, she went on to make even more of an impact, most notably in the Visible Secret films.

No description can really do justice to the show that Fruit Chan puts on here, confusing as it may be temporarily at times. The Longest Summer is not for the impatient viewer as a lot of time is devoted to talking but it's a well realized character- and country portrayal by, at that time, a new, strong emerging directing force in Hong Kong cinema. Technically Chan rises a bit above his previous indie effort but never drowns, what really can be counted as sophomore effort, it despite this being his 3rd film, in excessive style. It's just drowned in complexity that for me personally I would like to reinterpret through a rewatch. Something not all movies, even if they're muddled as hell AND acclaimed, allows for.

The DVD:

Universe's 1.80:1 framed print shows occasional damage but is a decent presentation in terms of clarity and colours.

The Cantonese 2.0 mono language track obviously isn't full of range but dialogue and effects come through clear.

The English subtitles have a few spelling errors but convey the important events and such in the film very well. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Only extra is the trailer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson