Aspiration, Honor, Loyalty and Culture Clashes from the ‘Floating City’ to the Throne

[23 August 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

First and foremost, Floating City is an incredibly beautiful movie. Director Yim Ho uses his camera lens to drink in the scenery of Hong Kong over a decades-long story that is as beautiful as the scenery itself. That scenery, especially on the water surrounding Hong Kong, is truly breathtaking as Ho’s use of natural light on the sparkling water brings the ocean and the title “city” (actually a collective of Tanka fishing vessels moored off the Hong Kong coast) almost to the level of characters in their own right.

This Cantonese-language film begins in the ‘40s, when the British East India Company had vast control over Hong Kong’s citizens and society. Our main character is born into this dichotomy of two worlds, but fits into neither. Bo Wah Chuen is born to a Chinese mother, but has red hair and blue eyes. His mother abandons him to the priests and he is almost miraculously adopted into a new family by an ethnic Tanka mother who recently suffered a miscarriage (actress Josie Ho in a brilliantly dramatic performance).

As Bo grows to manhood he is denied access to the basic rights of Chinese children (he is forced to blacken his hair with shoe polish to attend school) and is equally ostracized by the British upper crust due to his mixed blood and Tanka upbringing. The Chinese call him by the name “Mixed”, the British refer to him as “Half-Breed”.

Most films of this kind build into a predictable “rags to riches” tale, but director Ho (who wrote the film with Marco Pong) pull the mystery right out from under the viewer by quickly flashing forward to Bo’s adulthood (where he is played by former pop star Aaron Kwok) as he is revealed to be the first of Hong Kong’s Tai Pans for the East India Company. Much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films like Amores Perros and 21 Grams (albeit to a much less excessive degree), Floating City jumps back and forth in time to tell fragments of the past and future, removing the mystery of the story’s end and enhancing the questions of how our main character gets to this lofty end.

It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that this isn’t an easy rise and as the historically accurate loosening of Britain’s grip on Hong Kong takes place, so do Bo’s successes begin to expand. Kwok is nothing short of excellent in his role as Bo, straddling two worlds as an amalgam of both. While his evolution from shy, put upon fisherman through slow English Speaker to fluent businessman is fascinating to watch, Kwok’s best moments are silent, emoting without words.

Kwok is surrounded by excellence here. Josie Ho is incredible as Bo’s mother. She is strong and confident, but when she reaches her points of emotional breakdown, she is nothing if not convincing and never reaches the point of melodrama. Charlie Yeung is equally convincing in her role as Bo’s wife. Yeung has worked with Kwok on various projects for twenty years now, so her ability to remain convincing as the traditional, honorable Chinese woman dragged into and through a world that is completely alien to her may be a practiced tradition in itself. It is Annie Liu who steals virtually every scene her supporting character of Fion is in. Like Bo, Fion straddles two worlds, but with her proficient English and incredible confidence, every event we see is on her own terms.

Ho’s direction, his beautiful capture of the figurative and literal city and bold choices in editing, keep the entire film engrossing and worth every moment of the time it takes to view. This is a good thing, too, because the Blu-Ray of Floating City is decidedly “bare bones” when it comes to bonus features. There is a theatrical trailer for Floating City and a few other previews are included, but there are absolutely no other inclusions aside from the film.

Luckily the film is excellent, passionate and beautiful (especially in full HD) and, of course, the feature itself should be the main attraction for any Blu-ray release, but at a suggested retail price of $29.99, viewers might be better served renting the disc or searching for the film streaming. Extras or no, Floating City is a truly excellent film.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/174618-floating-city/