Directed by: Yim Ho; Runtime: 104 minutes
Mistreatment of biracial individuals, the buying and selling of children by desperate families, and class disruption between the rich and the poor are all prominent talking points in Floating City, storied writer/director Yim Ho's portrayal of a family belonging to southern China's boat-dwelling "Tanka people". While based on true events, as indicated by the film's end title cards, there's a lot of drama to take in with this depiction of a conflicted, mixed-race businessman's rise in '90s Hong Kong, during the end of Britain's occupation. Whatever intriguing purposes that this examination of identity and poverty might hold, however, gets lost in insistently unsubtle direction that emphasizes its key purposes in big, bold letters, distracting from the actual story being told and the occasionally effective performance from actor Aaron Kwok. The weepy lackluster drama and situational discomfort that result, despite taking a glimpse at an oft-neglected part of China's heritage, are simply too much to take in earnest.
Within the first five minutes or so of Floating City, this bulkiness becomes clear: the initial shots are of a pregnant woman alone on a boat in a rainstorm, blood trickling down her leg and her yelling towards the sky as she tries to navigate. I suppose it makes sense that the life of Bo Wah Chuen, a Caucasian-Chinese "half-breed" born of a British sailor's nefarious deeds, would thus be surrounded by a torrent of drama, given the circumstances of his conception and his paid adoption by a family of "egg people", how China's boat people are referred to here. After we're given a glimpse at Bo much later down the line as a bespectacled, dapper, socialite businessman interacting with his family and other significant people during a party, the film's objective comes into focus. With knowledge that this young man will become someone important, Yim Ho takes us through his trials of poverty and mistreatment as a mixed-race young man growing up in a fisherman's family, with dreams of becoming a player in the Imperial East India Company and little knowledge of where he comes from.
There's a substantial story underneath Floating City, about a maltreated man of mixed race who scales some pretty impressive barriers to better his life: improving his literacy, going to school, and learning how to swim with the suit-'n-tie sharks of the British-helmed company. Aaron Kwok becomes the suitable-enough axis to which it all revolves; his intense eyes and chiseled jaw are the evolving focus as Bo Wah Chuen weathers multiple stages in his life. The erratic performances surrounding him don't do it any favors, however, fluctuating between overblown caricatures -- namely the belligerent businessman who lets Bo Wah Chuen into the company -- to forgettable moving pieces around his struggles to defy the odds. The script already leans towards melodramatic situations instead of natural interactions, and the lack of other considerable performances accentuates that issue. Scattered moments of subtlety do appear, such as when Bo Wah Chuen's wife (Charlie Yeung) feels obligated to "serve" the wives of other businessmen at a party, but they're few and far between.
Floating City boasts colorful, well-composed cinematography from Ardy Lam that tracks every nuance of emotion as Bo grows older -- every pang of disappointment, ray of hope, and moment of emotional confusion -- driven by lump-in-the-throat music that further clarifies the scenes' objectives. Yim Ho captures the life of China's fisherman culture with a textured, matter-of-fact perspective that also grasps the gristly beauty hidden underneath the hardship, such as sunlight bouncing of buckets full of fish and the brief moments where a family sits together with water surrounding them. With that insistent style of photography and music also comes a degree of persuasion that makes certain scenes so exhausting that they end up feeling hollow, notably when children are crying as they're dropped off at orphanages or sold to other families. Yim Ho rarely lets these scenes' natural intentions shine, instead sledgehammering them home with transparent filmmaking.
As a whole, the impression I took away from Floating City is that of an overwrought and disjointed meditation on the value of life and the injustice of misfortune, a melodrama that confuses its soapbox-worthy communication of social issues and generational shifts in China for an enriching tale of cohabiting with them. Lots of unfortunate things happen as a result of Bo Wah Chuen's dedication, from ethnic slurs and professional mistreatment to personal disconnect with his family, and the admirable perspective that the film conveys about his identity confusion due to hardship could work well in other settings. Here, however, each new chapter in his life almost appears as yet another opportunity to make a statement, without a clear grasp on conveying a seamless point-of-view on the people affected by said issues -- especially the strained, evolving modern businessman who came from nothing. This ensures that the experience isn't one with many rewards, despite Yim Ho's noble objectives.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 8/23/2013