Hong Kong 2014 Review: ABERDEEN Is Pang Ho Cheung's Most Mature Work Yet

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Pang Ho Cheung delivers a beautifully observed portrait of a modern Hong Kong family that fuses social commentary with fantastical imagery and his trademark cheeky humour to wonderful effect.

In a notable shift in tone from his recent successes, Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung takes a more serious look at his home town in Aberdeen, and the myriad challenges facing its inhabitants, as experienced by the Cheng family. An increasingly despondent tour guide, Wai Ching (Miriam Yeung) wrestles with lingering grievances about her dead mother, while her doctor husband, Yau (Eric Tsang) has drifted into a steamy affair with his buxom young nurse (Jacky Choi). 

Meanwhile Wai Ching's brother Tao (Louis Koo), who tutors young women in using their looks to snare wealthy husbands, is struggling to accept his daughter, Chloe (Lee Man Kwai), may grow up to be less than stunning. This is particularly difficult to accept because Chloe's mother, Ceci (Gigi Leung) is a famous model and actress, although she is facing increasing competition from younger women in her field. 

Finally, the family's patriarch, Taoist priest Dong (Ng Man Tat), has begun dating a nightclub hostess (Carrie Ng), and mourns not only his wife, but his family's former status as fishermen, now run aground in Aberdeen, a small waterfront community in southern Hong Kong.

Each character faces his or her own unique challenges, and Pang helps them deal with them in a variety of ways, be they humorous, painful or cathartic. Around them, the identity of Hong Kong continues to change, and they must realign their own dreams, traditions and ambitions if they are to succeed, but ultimately all learn to accept that family comes first.

While Pang's recent films used language, sex and modern dating rituals to shine a light on Hong Kong's unique and nuanced culture, Aberdeen aims for something simultaneously more profound and fantastical. Real events ripped from recent headlines form a backdrop to the family drama, such as the discovery of an unexploded WWII-era bomb in the heart of the city, or the sighting of a rogue whale in the harbour. Mostly, however, Aberdeen focuses on more universal struggles - infidelity, ageing, identity, bullying, unresolved grievances with the deceased - but Pang never allows his characters to wallow in their hardships, bringing his particular brand of self-aware comedy, and a smattering of titillation, to the proceedings.

The result is an ensemble of well-drawn and largely sympathetic characters, even as they expose their own vanities, insecurities and weaknesses. Particularly strong is Gigi Leung, in her first notable role in some time. Ceci is being pushed out of her profession due to her advancing years, despite her best efforts to stay in shape and look her best. Pang's camera never shies away from showing us that the 38-year-old actress has maintained her figure, but we feel genuine compassion for her as she is strong-armed into less glamorous and more compromising work to sustain her high profile. 

Similarly, Louis Koo's Tao advocates exterior beauty for financial gain, and talks openly about his disappointment that his pudgy daughter, "Piggy", isn't better looking. His vanity goes so far as to suggest he may not even be the girl's father, and yet his frank yet somewhat deplorable discussions on the subject with best buddy Chapman To are played for laughs successfully.

Miriam Yeung and Eric Tsang have perhaps the most challenging roles in the film, as Wai Ching (a museum tour guide unable to escape her own past) spends much of the film crying and feeling sorry for herself. Conversely, Tsang's philandering hubby is rolling around with a beautiful young lovely, and offers little support to his grieving wife. However, even they reach a level of compassion and reconciliation that wins us over to their plight.

Newcomer Lee Man Kwai brings a new dimension to Pang's work. Her bullied youngster, Chloe, escapes her lonely daily life into a cardboard model dreamscape of a miniature Hong Kong. It's a brilliantly realised effect that adds a fantastical, somewhat surreal skew to the film, and when Chloe's sickly pet iguana "Greenie" is reincarnated as a Godzilla-esque kaiju, Aberdeen for a moment echoes a goofy alternate take of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim.

There are many more delights to be had with Aberdeen, including a number of cameos from Pang regulars including Shawn Yue and Dada Chen, nods to his cast's real lives and interests, all beautifully captured by Jason Kwan's cinematography and accompanied by a delightfully breezy score from Peter Kam. The result is a more mature, reflective Pang Ho Cheung film, but one that retains the energy, sense of fun and unique Hong Kong flavour of the city's most consistently exciting filmmaker.
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