Having been adopted as a baby and raised on a fishing boat, Chuen (Aaron Kwok) finds himself one of the most successful businessmen in Hong Kong. With non-Chinese features, most noticeably his blue eyes and reddish hair, Chuen seems to have overcome incredible odds to become the man he is today. As he reflects on his life and his roots, the question of ‘Who am I?’ burns deeply in Chuen stronger than most.
Director Yim Ho helms this visually striking and deeply affecting drama about cultural identity and family history in colonial Hong Kong. One of the most acclaimed directors of the Hong Kong new wave, Yim Ho returns to his roots, albeit with a larger budget than ever, to film a personal and apparently true story of one man’s recollection of his life and what it has meant to where he is now. Beautifully shot, the film is filled with wondrous images and some terrific cinematography. Many scenes, in particular confined spaces like the boat, offices, and interiors of buildings, give an intimate quality to the proceedings that truly lends itself to the plot. This is a highly personal story and definitely one that benefits from this introspective approach.
The perennially young Aaron Kwok tackles this role with probably one of his best performances to date. As his character deals with a number of difficult situations; the omnipresent racism against his origin, the stuggle for acceptance, the tragedy of loss, and the difficulty of escaping his and his family’s dire economic situation, Kwok reveals a very real person who has probably suffered more than is typical for someone his age. This is no ‘by the bootstraps’ tale however, it is very Chinese in its depiction of strong family values playing a role in his life, in particular his very amazing mother, played in various time periods by actresses Josie Ho and Nina Paw. There is a huge gap that existed between the uneducated and the elite in this period that persists even to this day. These type of heartbreaking sacrifices that were necessary really left a weight in the pit of stomach at times.
While I enjoyed the film by the end, certain elements kept the film from truly breaking out into ‘amazing’ territory. First, it takes quite a while to develop any real empathy towards Chuen. You accept that he is a victim of his circumstances and that he wishes to better his situation, but this isn’t necessarily earned through Kwok’s performance but rather by some somewhat manipulative direction. Second, a number of characters have very superficial and one-sided roles that have a supposedly important impact on his development but they, his friend Lin most noticeably, disappear without closure or payoff. And finally, while the English actors did much better than is typical of Hong Kong productions, they never truly get elevated above racist and power hoarding individuals. I hesitate to say that the film is anti-English, but they certainly are shown in a favorable light here.
In the end, Floating City is a solidly acted and beautifully shot picture that seeks to shed light on a part of Chinese and Hong Kong history rarely explored on film. While sometimes deceptive in its storytelling and tone, it is nonetheless an engaging and interesting film that surprised me by the very nuanced performance of the uneven Kwok.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: To Live, Beautiful Country, and Go