Tuesday, 30 September 2014

All for one, one for all 危樓春曉

In view of what is happening in Hong Kong, this is a prescient time to revisit one of the great classic icons of Cantonese film, In the Face of Demolition, 危樓春曉. No-one can really understand a place until they understand the moral values which influence the way people think. In 1953, when the film was made, Hong Kong was very much a city in turmoil. Everyone was a refugee, including the native born, who'd been displaced  by the Japanese invasion. Cheerful as the people in the movie might seem, they're operating against a background of hardship and extreme insecurity.Watch the opening credits which show a busy city, panning to a shot of a bombed-out building.

Dressed in a sharp western suit,  Lo Ming, (Cheung Ying 張瑛 ) arrives in a rickshaw. He's moving into a run-down tenement. The decreptitude is a symbol.  The owner of the building is Wong Tai Pan – Big shot Wong (Lo Tun (盧敦) who speaks English to intimidate Ah Fong (Mui Yee  梅綺). Mr Lo doesn't realize it but he's moving into a room currently occupied by a family. whose father is played by Wong  Cho san 黃楚山. They haven't been able to pay the rent for 3 months, and they're being evicted, even though the mother has just given birth and can't walk. The commotion wakes the lady in the next bed space, Pak Ying (Tsi Law Lin 紫羅蓮) who leans over the flimsy partition. In those days, houses didn't have rooms but were divided up by screens or pieces of cloth.  The housekeeper Sam Koo is tough, but she has no choice. The house owner's wife screams at her.

 Enter Leung Wai, (Ng Cho Fan 吳楚帆), a tall and confident taxi driver). He confronts the owner's wife and offers to pay for the family to use the maid's bed space in the corridor (she says she'll sleep in the staircase). Eventually the owner returns and blows up at the housekeeper. "Do you know" he says in bad English, "This is crim-in-nal" and threatens the housekeeper with prison. A small detail,  but one with political ramifications. in a colony where the justice system was badly skewed. Although 99% of the population couldn't speak English, the use of Chinese was forbidden in the courts and officialdom until 1974. So much for the myth that "Chinese people aren't political" which the colonial government used to deny democracy in Hong Kong, with results as we see today.

The cubicle dividers are flimsy, and by accident Lo knocks over Leung's prized possession, a framed calligraphy that reads "All for one, one for all". "It was given to me by my seefoo" says Ng Cho Fan. "It's a motto by which I've lived my life"  Lo is a teacher, way up the social scale even though he's poor, while Leung is an uneducated guy, but positive and moral, which is utterly pertinent to the plot. "I'm a direct kind of guy", he adds, "I do and say what I think". Which includes kissing his wife in public, which must have been pretty racy in 1953. (see main photo above)

One of the other neighbours  (who fantasizes he's a kung fu master) played by Ko Lo Cheun (高魯泉 ) comes into Lo's room to draw. He used to be an artist before falling on hard times. He tells Lo that the house owner used to be a big shot too, but lost everything but the shabby tenement. Ah Fong isn't a maid but the owner's wife's niece, a naive country girl. from a good family, but exploited by her aunt. The beautiful Miss Pak is well bred, but fell on hard times too. She works as a dance hostess, fending off groping customers. "At night I hear her crying", says Yee Suk, "so pitiful" "Such a small building" says Lo, "But so many sad stories."

Lo and Pak have a lot in common: they drink a lot of coffee (unusual for the time) and share the same birthday.  Lo tries to borrow money from his school, but gets fired. Pak can't borrow from her boss either because she won't sleep with customers."You book learning people" says Brother Leung, "always worrying". He stumps up so the party can go on. Everyone joins in for dinner, including the owner Wong and his wife, but Wong keeps complaining and leaves. Leung, ever positive, says "We're all poor together. Even if all we have is white congee and yau ja kuei, we can fill up on that and be just as happy". Miss Pak's friend from the dance hall is there, dressed up like a glamour girl. "Looks aren't anything, I know what it's like when you can't even afford fish balls".  Miss Pak tells the group, "We don't dress up for vanity, we need to present an illusion so we can scrape a living".

Miss Pak's friend introduces Lo to a publisher who says he wants to print the short stories Lo writes now he's unemployed.  Lo is so excited that he dreams they'll be rich and travel "The world will be ours - America, Canada, Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece - and Russia" !" (said in English, while wearing his pyjamas).  What they don't know is that the publisher is a crook. Fung Ying Sheung (馮應湘 ) was a American-Chinese famous for playing sleazy gangsters. All this playing around with the English language! – there's an implicit sub text somewhere. Lo and Pak laugh so much they wake the whole house. But the publisher turns out to be a fraud. Lo blames Pak for making him lose face. She scolds him for being selfish and getting his head turned by money, forgetting his true friends. In a beautiful scene, they make up, over the top of the cubicle divider. He decides to get a job so he can marry her, and she won't have to be a dance hostess.

Building owner Wong has been grooming Ah Fong. One night, his wife gets blind drunk, and he tells Ah Fong to watch her in their room. Instead, he rapes her.. His wife blames the girl for being ungrateful, and forces her to become a concubine. "If only she'd got a job when she left the countryside" observes one of the tenants. "None of this would have happened."

Earlier in the film, Bruce Lee played the son of the father of the family. The boy refused to eat, so his mother could eat instead, since she couldn't breastfeed the new baby as she had no milk. The father vowed he would do anything to help such a virtuous son. Since he can't get work, he sells his blood. Father feeds family, and also the Leungs, who are poor now that Leung lost his job as a driver and had to become an unskilled labourer. "I can't eat" says Bruce Lee, "it's like eating your blood, Dad."  Wong Cho San (the father) is a wonderful actor. As all at the table fall silent with guilt, Wong's expressive face speaks volumes. at last, he pretends to be cheerful. "Eat up everyone!" he says, "I'm behind 2 months in rent but now Lo the Teacher has got a job as rent collector, we'll be OK". Unfortunately, it's not up to Lo. His bosses are ruthless  and put pressure on him. He has to collect all the rents within 3 days because there's a demolition order on the house in 10 days. Building owners scream at the housekeeper, who screams at the tenants, but no-one has any money. The father of the family tries to sell his blood again, but the clinic won't use him again. He helps Leung at the wharf, but he's too weak and collapses. Their workmates clubbed together and raised $60 for medical treatment. Instead, they give it to Lo the rent collector.

On a typhoon night, Leung's wife goes into labour, while he's on night shift.. The women go to help. Ah Fong is so unhappy she tries to hang herself, but is stopped by the Father of the Family. He tells her that life is precious, even when it seems hopeless. He's used up his last ounce of strength and dies. A funeral, a birth and hospital to pay for. Meanwhile the storms outside gets fierce, and rain comes through the roof. Lo takes rent money to his boss, who is sitting in a comfy living room, wearing a smoking suit. "There you are sitting in comfort while houses are falling apart, and lives are in danger" says Lo, "Stuff your job". Huh !" sneers the boss, "I can get anyone, anytime to replace you". Back at the tenement, people are fleeing for their lives as the house collapses. Big shot Wong is killed.

At the hospital, Leung's wife has lost a lot of blood while giving birth. Miss Pak, Ah Fong and Ko Lo Chuen are in the waiting room. Lo turns up with money from his wages,and asks if the tenants will forgive him. It turns out that Mrs Leung has a rare blood type (B negative) and her only match is Lo the teacher. Mrs Leung needs so much blood that the doctor asks why Lo wants to endanger his own health to save hers "We are friends" says Lo. "Friends help each other". Lo still feels guilty because he chased his friends for rent, but they're all happy now he has helped save Mrs Leung's life. "it's thanks to Leung kor, who taught me his motto, Everyone looks after each other".

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