Movie Review: Adieu (告別之前)

Ever since the film 10 YEARS became a hit here a few years back and got its director Jevons Au blacklisted across the border in the process, many Hong Kong filmmakers have taken a more measured approach to their criticisms of both our city’s government and China’s too. While they are still tackling social issues, they are doing so while subtly giving a nice smack across the face to the people in power whose policies and indifference are disenfranchising the middle and lower classes. The Hong Kong film ADIEU takes a look at three people who all learn that they have cancer. In doing so, the film sheds light on our city’s shaky social infrastructure.

When Yan Kiu (Gladys Li/李靖筠, BIG BROTHER) begins her first day of work at a social services agency, she is immediately thrown into the deep end. The young woman’s first three cases are quite a challenge: Mr. & Mrs. Cheung’s (Cantopop singer and air conditioning pitchman Louis Cheung/張繼聰 (HAPPINESS) and Michelle Wai/衛詩雅 (77 HEARTBREAKS)) five-year-old daughter Yan Yan has recently been diagnosed with leukemia, twenty-something Ka Shun (Hedwig Tam/談善言, WEEDS ON FIRE) has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and 80-year-old Auntie Lan (1950s matinee idol Law Lan/羅蘭) has been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. But Yan Kiu manages to maintain her compassion and optimism even as her clients struggle with having to say goodbye to their loved ones.

In the early 00s, director Kenneth Lau Hau-wai (劉孝偉) was pumping out as many as seven films a year, most of them being low-budget fare. He then took some time off to get a master’s degree, not in filmmaking but in psychology. This is his first film in 13 years but he still hasn’t lost his love of shoestring filmmaking. ADIEU’s budget was reported to be just US$637,000 and it shows to its detriment. The film seems cheap and amateurish. I can appreciate that Lau was working with a micro-budget (did the actors even get paid?) but how expensive would it have been to hire a few extras to sit in the hospital’s waiting room or to walk the halls of the pediatric cancer ward? (Hint #1: Hospitals are never devoid of people!) But that isn’t the worst part of this film. If you’re going to tackle heady subjects like cancer and death, then at least be mature about them. Go to a pediatric cancer ward at a hospital and interview a few parents and children who are facing uncertainty. (Hint #2: There’s such a thing as remission.) Follow some real social workers around for a week and see what they really do. Then write about it responsibly. Don’t pussy foot around the issues and don’t sugar coat them with silly dialogue, as Lau and fellow screenwriter Monie Tung Man-Lee (董敏莉) have done here.

ADIEU is a complete downer. I like serious and sombre films, and I kept hoping that Lau would somehow tie the three stories together other than these people all have the same social worker. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen and the story keeps spiralling towards a dark abyss as the three characters get sicker. So what’s the point? Well, that answer comes right at the end of the film when the three characters say goodbye to their loved ones in their own ways. It is all so maudlin, especially when the Cheungs use their daughter’s legacy to create a sing-a-long prayer group for other cancer patients. If Lau simply wanted to make a movie about people who face death, he was successful but only in that very few Hong Kong films have tackled this subject before. Audiences will not come away from this film with any great epiphanies. Hong Kong directors and screenwriters will need to delve much deeper than this and bring some new ideas to their films if they’re going to move audiences and create change.

As trite as this melodrama is, the film does benefit from the performance of Cantopop singer Jason Chan Pak-Yu/陳柏宇, who plays Ka Shun’s dedicated boyfriend. Chan hasn’t been in a film in four years, preferring instead to concentrate on his music career. It’s too bad as he has good screen presence. The rest of the film and its cast, however, are completely disposable.

Do not waste your time seeing ADIEU, unless you’re a masochist.

The Hollywood Reporter reported on August 21, 2018 that at least 50 investors, including the backers of ADIEU, have claimed that the director has defrauded them of up to US$1.27 million. Lau, meanwhile, has been reported as missing since December 2017 and is believed to be hiding in Taiwan. It’s never dull in Hong Kong, that’s for sure!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, September 6th at 8:30 am HK time!

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