Nostalgia for the pre-1997 handover days is currently in vogue with Hong Kong’s millennials, which is rather strange when you consider that many of them weren’t alive during that time. Nevertheless, there is the general consensus among these people that those were the golden days for the city, where if you worked hard, you could succeed.
A bleak housing estate in Shatin in 1984 forms the backdrop for a new film by first-time director, Chan Chi-fat. (A bit of context is needed here for those who don’t know about Shatin. Beginning in the 1970s, the Hong Kong government developed the “new town” to properly house the waves of mainland Chinese immigrants who had streamed across the border in the 1950s and ’60s, many of whom had either been living in hastily-built shanty towns or in older and overcrowded housing estates dotted across the territory. Though noble in its concept, Shatin quickly became ghetto where many children didn’t finish high school and often joined triads to make a living. Today, the living conditions in Shatin have vastly improved and, although the housing estates still exist, this mini-city of over 630,000 residents has pretty much become a middle-class suburb.) Best friends and neighbours Fan Chun-wai (Tony Wu) and Tse Chi-lung (Lam Yiu-sing) are juniors at a “Band 5” high school there. Their principal, Lo Kwong-fai (Liu Kai-chi), is under no illusions, and he applies to the school board for funds to start one of the territory’s first baseball teams. Though the bureaucrats think Lo is wasting his time on boys who will never amount to anything, on a sport that barely has a following in Hong Kong, they agree to his request. Lo hopes that the team will be able to provide the discipline that is desperately lacking in his students’ lives. This includes Fan and Tse, who are pressured by Lo to join.
Needless to say, early practices are a fiasco but Lo is undaunted. When he arranges a friendly match against a Little League team from Taiwan, the boys think it will be an easy win for them. Though the Shatin Martins, as they are now called, are sorely outclassed by their pint-sized guests, the experience achieves the desired outcome – for the first time in many of the boys’ lives, they see what can be possible with some focused effort. Fan, though, thinks the price is too high to pay and he drops out, preferring instead to join a triad.
Under Lo’s constant tutelage (which includes a lot of yelling), the remaining team members band together and begin to win games. Eventually they make it to the finals where they put it all on the line against the feared Buffaloes from Japan.
WEEDS ON FIRE was one of the first three projects to be wholly funded by the government’s First Feature Film Initiative. The Chinese title translates to “Half Step”, which director Chan says can make the difference on the baseball field between scoring or not. In life, he says, you wish you took that half step when you were young. That feeling is evident in the film’s beginning and ending, which features an older Tse walking through the city’s Occupy Central protest area and reflecting back on that simpler time in Hong Kong.
I asked Chan how he was able to get government funding given those scenes. He told me that he pitched the idea early in 2013, long before the Occupy protests took place. As he was filming in the fall of 2014, he decided to incorporate the current political situation in Hong Kong into his story. “When the government people saw the final product, they were shocked,” he said. “They asked if I was sure I wanted to leave these scenes in. The agreement, though, was that the filmmakers could have complete artistic freedom so I left them in.” As for future prospects for the film, it has been shown to a few buyers from mainland China. “They expressed concerns about the protest scenes,” Chan said. Negotiations are ongoing.
Like another recent Hong Kong film, the award-winning 10 YEARS, WEEDS ON FIRE is a political film. There’s a scene towards the end where Tse, in voiceover, recalls the colonial government’s support for the team. I asked Chan why he included the word “colonial” when he easily could have done without it. Chan said he believes that today’s government wouldn’t support such a team whereas the colonial government would… and did. He may be right. The government is currently organising an event for China’s Olympic gold medal winners but it is doing nothing for the Hong Kong athletes who competed in Rio.
WEEDS ON FIRE is a competently made coming-of-age film about Hong Kong seen through rose-coloured glasses. The story is somewhat predictable and the film deals with Shatin’s social issues in a sometimes heavy manner but, especially for a first effort, this is a film is worth seeing.
Chan told me that he’s been shooting a sitcom for ViuTV since June, which will air from mid-July to December. After that, he wants to return to filmmaking, possibly doing another film that touches on political issues.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:20.)
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