It's Speech Day in a Hong Kong school. Education was a hard-won privilege for many, in those days before public education. A student stands up to thank parents for what they've done so their children can go to school, but breaks down in tears.
Pan to a shot of Shatin when it was completely rural, with paddy fields and the river. "Has mountains, has water" says the speaker, using an idiomatic expression which means beautiful nature. "It looks peaceful", she adds, "But the people who live here have hard lives". Pan to a shot of the traditional house on the mountainside. The Chang family aren't farmers but modern folk who live in the countryside. Dad takes the train and ferry to work in a bank in Central. Look how he eats his lunch, with his foot on the bench in old-fashioned style, which people don't do nowadays. His lunch is rice in the kind of metal tin everyone used in those days, including my Dad. He has two fish and offers to share one with a friend.
Dad walks home from the station. The younger kids are having baths in metal basins in the open air. "Don't sit on the ground, you've just been washed!" scolds older sister - a detail observed from real, lived experience. Dad's brought home a treat, a whole catty of pork, tied on a string! "What's the fuss" says Mum. "We haven't had pork for half a month. Besides, I'd like some", says Dad, who plays lovingly with the kids. Look at the fire stove in the kitchen, and at the pandanus fans. No air con. Friends visit, and extended family. "Remember how we used to catch crabs together," Dad asks his boyhood friend, the local truck driver. They entertain themselves by playing old-fashioned hand games and a friend sings while playing the erhu. Mum washes dishes in the stream. The kids have fallen asleep. It's a scene of perfect bliss.
But money is short. Mum suggests taking Ah Ming the daughter out of school."What's the point, even educated people can't get jobs." But Dad says education is good in itself because it make you a better person. To save money, Dad gives up the trains and cycles to town, up Shatin Pass, one of the steepest hills in the area. Secretly Ah Ming quits school so she can buy a train pass for him. She gets a humiliating job as an exhibit in a fun fair, and switches back into school uniform so her parents won't find out. But of course they do. Dad flies into a rage. But when he realizes why she did it, he blames himself. Love and self-sacrifice, the moral basis of this movie.
Dad loses his job, but borrows money to pay Ah Ming's school fees. He starts carrying passengers on a bicycle, (even lower than pulling a rickshaw). One day, Dad forgets his cardigan. Ah Ming goes to Kowloon to bring it to him and finds out what he's doing. "You lied!" she cries. But he says, people have to do what they can to get by. Dad cheers the family up by singing opera, including the falsetto part. Mum helps a friend sell fried tofu in the market (another Sha Tin speciality). One day, the flaming oil from the pan falls on little brother, who is badly burned. Brother is sick, Mum's pregnant again. Dad is sick and is run over by a car and goes to hospital. Where's the money going to come from? No public health, then. Luckily, the community pulled together. "We didn't eat enough", Ah Ming tells her school, "But I didn't stop studying". The film ends with a shot of Dad, walking on crutches, beaming with joy.
The movie is simple, but that gives it impact: it's so direct and so beautifully filmed. Ah Ming, the daughter, is played by Shi Hui (Shek Hui 石慧) born 1934. Like most of the Chinese movie industry, she had strong social values. In 1967 she and her husband were imprisoned for their beliefs. Watching this film, maybe we should appreciate where she was coming from. The focus of the film, however, is Dad, played by Lee Chi-yuk (李次玉). The director was Li Ping Qian (李萍倩, 1901-?, photo above)