Lawrence Lau (aka Lawrence Ah Mon) has made a name for himself over the past twenty years by making small innovative films, the best of which eschew the use of stars in favor of either non-actors or low-profile actors. Queen of Temple Street (1990), Spacked Out (2000) and Gimme Gimme (2001) have far more earnest, if not artistic, ambitions than your average Hong Kong film and refuse to acquiesce to comedic or melodramatic expectations. Often focusing on the problems and/or debauchery of youth culture, Lau has earned a tag (or a red herring) as an art-house director. If Lau makes films like an outsider, that's because he started out that way. He was born in South Africa, studied in the US and then subsequently worked as assistance director to Tsui Hark, which might explain why he has other things on his mind other than what the Hong Kong film market demands.
Two recent films directed by Lau, Besieged City (2007) and City Without Baseball (2008), shows a return to the grittiness of Spacked Out and the light-heartedness of Gimme Gimme with some failure and some success. Besieged City takes place in Tin Shui Wai, part of the New Territories in Hong Kong, known for its wetlands, huge housing estates and sensational news stories fueled by its social ills. It is the later that has given the neighborhood the nickname "City of Sadness" and that has inspired Lau's film. Oppressive from beginning to end, Besieged City is a dire depiction of youth culture that is almost too resolute in its melancholia.
Ling is a high school student in a no win situation. Surrounded by violence both inside and outside the home, he does his best to keep his head down. If it's not his abusive father then it's his bullying classmates that keep him inside his wordless shell in order to protect himself. But when his runaway younger brother, Jun, ends up accused of murder and in a coma from an attempted suicide, Ling is forced to uncover the truth about his brother's life on the streets. Told in flashback, Jun's hard-knock life is slowly revealed. Baring the brunt of his father's tirades and falling prey to the relentless abuse of his classmates, Jun abandoned school and his family to eventually find refuge with a group of similar wayfaring delinquents. Typical mayhem ensues in the form of sex, drugs and petty crime that leads Jun to mid-level triad activity. As the story unravels so the mystery builds regarding how and why Jun stands accused of murder.
A youth film without youth stars in Hong Kong is as refreshing now as it was when Lau made Gangs in 1988. Not only was I struck by the new faces in Besieged City, but also the formidable performances they all gave. Because of this, Besieged City maintains some authenticity despite the overwrought despair and viciousness that hangs over almost every scene. Watching a very drunk pair of girls snort a line of cocaine longer than most coffee tables is as over-the-top as seeing a gaggle of remorseless teenage girls shove a young boys head in a urinal over and over. The exploration of familial loyalty when the chips are down between Ling and Jun, as well as two sisters who enter the picture, is barely allowed to surface amongst a very harsh notion of reality and largely one dimensional characters. Cues for sentimentality from the music are completely out of place and there is a polish to the brutality that rings false, if not slightly exploitive, right down to the very definitive finale. Besieged City is a very bitter pill to swallow.
City Without Baseball is a completely different story. On the surface, it's a very conventional romantic drama, but it also reaches into idiosyncratic corners for moments of minor brilliance. Co-directed and written by newcomer Scud with Lau in the passengers seat, the film employs the physical and emotional talents of the Hong Kong National Baseball Team to play themselves in a drama loosely based on their own experiences. But being a baseball player in Hong Kong is like being a curling player in Orlando: their sport is a personal passion, not a popular pastime with most people in Hong Kong completely unaware that they even have a team. Aptly pointed out early in the film, Hong Kong baseball fields don't have bleachers because they have no audience. Baseball might be their dream, but it is the incidentals of life—jobs, relationships, family and friends—that builds the subtext of this brave and gentle film.
Diverting the camera's eye away from the sport, Lau and Scud focus on the interpersonal relationships both on and off the field in a meandering sort of way. Far more contemplative than plot driven, City Without Baseball is one season in the life of a 'professional' Hong Kong baseball player. Coach Tai is the new guy from Taiwan who must inspire his team and come to terms with being a transplant. Chung is the star pitcher who is just as serious about baseball as he is about driving fast cars and wooing young women. Ron is the quiet up-and-coming pitcher who is at a crossroads in terms of his life's choices and confronting his sexuality. Storylines emerge and then disappear, as do the waves of melodrama (not to mention weird music homages to Hong Kong singers who have passed away.) If City wasn't so low-key, it could easily be tossed aside as a fragmented mess, but instead is able to form a dramatic amalgamation within the sum of all its various parts.
City Without Baseball may be most notable, however, for the amount of male skin that graces the screen. An opening sequence of the team in the shower that erupts in a game of ass-smacking is at once completely honest and thoroughly homoerotic. But even when they are not horsing around in the showers, they are shedding there clothes for the ladies or simply running buck naked out of frustration. As a result, the baseball players read like the Greek gods of Hong Kong, sans fig leaf. The lack of modesty within the Hong Kong National Baseball Team may come off as flamboyance or even arrogance, but it is overshadowed by their surprising ability to pull off solid performances. If Scud was the creative force behind the film, then Lau is the orchestrator that keeps the actors and story from falling flat on its face. City Without Baseball is adventurous in subtle ways that are hard to overlook, even if the film isn't entirely successful.
Watch the trailer for Besieged City HERE.
Watch the trailer for City Without Baseball HERE.