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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   July Rhapsody  


July Rhapsody

Reviewed by sieteocho

Chinese Title: Laam yan sei sap
Director: Ann Hui
Writing Credits: Ivy Ho
Cast: Jacky Cheung, Anita Mui, Karena Lam Kar Yan, Eric Koi
Genre: Drama
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 103 min

July Rhapsody is a great movie, really lucid in the way that it shades the emotions of the characters, yet purposely vague about the outcome. Some people have called it slow-moving and it might seem that way. Yet I can't put my finger on any wasted scenes. It is a portrait of a man in middle age, as its Chinese title ("man at 40") seems to suggest. Just like the middle-aged guy in "Yi Yi" (one of my all-time favorites), he deals with his mid-life crisis by revisiting the ghosts of his youth.

WARNING: Spoilers

The movie opens with him looking out into a shimmering beach with his son (not exactly his son). And telling the story of his youth, which is strange because he's not in the habit of telling stories. He looks at the departing ferry, and the old cliche comes to mind: he's going to miss the boat. Maybe he's missed it already.

Jackie Cheung is a world-weary school teacher raising two kids, one in high school and the other in college. He's a little young to have kids that age but he’s a parent since he was very young. He’s been a schoolteacher since he was very young too, because he’s had a family to bring up since god knows when. Not very rich either, gets a little resentful (but not very) when he sees his friends being younger and richer than he is.

Wu Cailan is a wonderful name. "Wu Cai" sounds like the Chinese expression for colorful. No doubt about it, she's a colorful person. Strong-minded, fun-loving, dreamy. but firmly grounded in reality. Like she says, "I always get what I want." This is not a performance by a newcomer. She looks like she's been acting for 20 years. One reason why it does not seem pedophilic for a teacher to be going out with his student, is that she is smart enough to be more than his equal. In fact it's pretty clear that she's stronger than he is, and she revels in that fact. At first, she makes a big show of crying over him, but a few weeks later she's proudly declaring, not inaccurately, that he can't resist her.

It isn't even clear what takes place in the end. When he comes back from Shenzhen after spending one night with Wu Cailan, he tells Anita Mui that he has something to tell her, but she interrupts her with news of her own, and neither she nor we ever get to figure out what it is, or what would have happened if he had told her. Is he going to say that he slept with Cailan? (And did he? It's not very clear either. And was she crying on the train back?) In the last scene before they go to the Yangtze river, he says that he could up and leave anytime. But would he? And they still owe themselves a trip to the Yangtze, don't they? So three possibilities: he could leave her and go to Cailan, he could just leave and go somewhere far away, or he could stay. But it's never clear which one it is.

Cailan is too young for him, and it is pretty clear that she has a taste for exciting men with expensive cars, even though she likes Jacky for his maturity. She gets a little disappointed when he is not quite as exciting as she thought he was, but she still loves him. But I don’t think they’ll be the ideal couple, and Cailan has got too much ahead of her to just throw herself with an older man, as Anita Mui did so many years ago.

We can say that history is replaying itself, but it's not a perfect symmetry. Of course Cailan conjures up the memories that he had of Ching when she was young. But it's pretty apparent that both of them are like chalk and cheese. The only thing they have in common is the school uniform and the student-teacher relationship. It’s hard to imagine Anita Mui being the streetwise Lolita that Karena is. And Jacky is not the bastard the teacher Mr. Shing is, who left him with a big mess to clean up for the rest of his life.

There's a tussle between the old and the new. Jacky gets resentful sometimes about the old things in the house, and to him Cailan represents something new, even as it harks back to his initial attraction to Anita / Ching. He longs for something new, and only thinks about Anita because he reminisces a time when everything was new. (This means youth.)

The movie says very little about the nature of his attraction to Anita. Perhaps he’s been around her for so long that he can hardly remember. He only remembers the pony tail at the back. And wow, that is really superficial.

There are some striking images that haunt him, firstly the old man who chokes on his food at the sushi restaurant, and the young man in the underpass who sings for a living. He looks at the helpless state of these two folks, and somehow Cailan standing next to him reminds him that his youth is slipping away, actually half gone, that there would be a time when he would be just as helpless as his old teacher is.

July Rhapsody is Karena Lam’s first movie. An astounding performance by somebody so young. I think she scooped about 6 or 7 awards from the various golden horses / bears / whatever they call the Oscars in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and it's probably almost unanimous that if she doesn't proceed from here on to become a major talent in Hong Kong cinema it will either be of her own volition or she would have to screw up really big. She gives a remarkably nuanced performance, as this young Lolita who is inexplicably even more wise than the older man she has a crush on. It's probably just me but I think that there is something mythical about a mind of a 50-year-old in the body of a nubile teenage school girl, and it's an incredible turn on. Yet the movie is hardly about her. She’s just the best supporting actress. Jackie Cheung and Anita Mui give wonderful performances too. Director Ann Hui shows a sure hand, and it all comes together nicely. Sorta.

That sweet throwing scene. Jacky is there, about to berate Karena for failing her economics. (Ironic, because it’s the most important topic for her now that she’s running her own shop.) Why does he feel a compulsive need to father her and take care of her "future", since obviously she doesn’t give a damn about it, and also because she can do without her general exams? I think he was seeking some reassurance that all those academic things that he is concerned about still have some currency with some people. The world’s turned on his head. Where he used to be the brightest spark in his class (and for those of you who don’t know Asian culture, that’s a big deal) he has been superseded by this guy who used to be a loser but is running a chain of successful night spots. She doesn’t care about all this. How she reacts is interesting, flirtatiously throwing candy at him, aiming for his pocket, almost like she’s trying to overwhelm his stiffness with her sweetness. When he reacts violently, she playfully tells him that he’s a naughty boy and has to be detained after class. I don’t know whether to be sorry for him or dead envious that he gets the mickey taken out of him like that.

The Yangtze river, a celebrated image of Chinese culture. He memorizes poems about the river, and vows to visit that fabled place at least once in his life. All those poems he shared with Anita and his teacher are still with him, and he can always fall back upon them. What the future brings is less important, but it’s always better to think back upon all the good times you had rather than all the things you missed out upon.

Another thing about this movie is the great score. The theme perfectly suits the mood of a middle-aged man coming to terms with his mortality, his world-weariness. It's not elaborate, it probably gets repeated too many times in the course of the movie, and the soundtrack would probably not hold a candle to, say, "Dances with Wolves" or something. But the theme catches on, it's as recognizable as, say other great themes like "Nights of Cabiria" or "The Godfather" and that isn't a bad thing.

All you readers out there ought to do yourselves a favor and watch this wonderful movie.

[This review first appeared in sieteocho.]