Pang Ho-Cheung’s “Aberdeen” – 2014 Hong Kong Review

In the opening scenes of “Aberdeen” (香港仔), a tour guide named Wai-Ching – played by Miriam Yeung – attempts to lead a group through an oral history of Hong Kong. Attempts, because one tour group member constantly corrects Yeung’s character, calling her out on all sorts of factual misinformation. When the distracted Wai-Ching shows more apathy than irritation, it is clear that there is more bothering her than a misperception of historical events.

The notion of differing views of a shared history, juxtaposed with fantastical scenes of dreams and nightmares, is what elevates Pang Ho-Cheung’s “Aberdeen” above a conventional drama surrounding a dysfunctional family. The Chinese name for the movie is the phrase used to describe the Hong Kong neighborhood of Aberdeen today – “Little Hong Kong” – and a nod to the city’s history as a village that was actually called Hong Kong, but in the 19th century inadvertently became the name for the entire city due to a comprehension error by incoming foreigners. It is also a reference to the city’s uncertain future as it careens toward 2047, the deadline of the post-British colony, 50-year grace period of political autonomy from mainland China.  This identity crisis and uneasiness parallel that of the family in “Aberdeen,” which consists of Wai-Ching, older sister to the image-obsessed “tutor king” Tao (Louis Koo), who are both children of a widowed Taoist priest (played by Ng Man Tat). Married into the family are Yau Kin-Cheung (Eric Tsang, playing Yeung’s philandering husband) and a past-her-prime model (Gigi Leung), who with Tao has one daughter, Chloe (played by newcomer Lee Man Kwai). All are introduced right away in the narrative, but through actions and words, it becomes immediately apparent that none is without foibles and transgressions.

As each character tries to solve present-day problems by reconciling perceived failures in past events, they discover that what they considered to be major sticking points in their personal histories either do not figure into the affected parties’ lives as much as they thought they did, or are recollected in a very different way. This is where Pang, who could have made each subject a caricature, excels in making his characters if not likable, then certainly relatable as human beings, as their faults can easily be our own or of those we personally know. These traits are amplified by a stalwart ensemble cast of trusted veterans from Pang’s past films, including those in short supporting roles but pivotal scenes (Chapman To, Shawn Yue, Dada Chan and Carrie Ng, to name a few).  That said, the drama never descends into melodrama, thanks to a few humorous moments (including one where Koo the character is made fun of in a direct parallel to Koo in real life), dreamlike scenes (such as Hong Kong rendered as a giant toy set), and Pang’s personal dose of Buddhism and philosophy.

In fact, it was the demise of one of Pang’s own family members six years ago and the ensuing fallout that inspired the script, and made the Hong Kong born-and-raised director question his own journey.  “Every time I pass by the flyover on Connaught Road in Central, I stare at the road sign that says “To All Destinations,”” Pang said in his official statement about the film and of the visual that makes an appearance in it.  “It confuses me. There was even a time when I wanted to make myself believe that Connaught Road really would lead me to all destinations, together with other Hong Kongers of our generation.”

“But life isn’t about the destination,” Pang added. “It’s a process of inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling. Only after you breathe out can you breathe in again; you can never move on until you let go of the past.”  It is a sentiment that, no doubt, has propelled “Aberdeen” into a remarkably measured and timeless family story that ultimately makes one ponder about the meaning of a finite existence.

“Aberdeen” made its world premiere as the opening film of the 2014 Hong Kong International Film Festival.  It screens theatrically in Hong Kong, North America and other locations beginning May 8.