Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Hong Kong, Interviews

Soi Cheang trains his cameras on a city in Limbo

‘Everyone is abandoned … and looking for redemption,’ says Hong Kong director…

“Limbo” is derived from the Latin word that means “the edge of hell” and Hong Kong director Soi Cheang has good reason to have handpicked it for the title of his new film.

“All the characters are suffering and waiting for a chance for redemption,” explains Cheang.

Limbo taps into Hong Kong’s rich history of police stories and crime thrillers. With all the basic ingredients covered – plus some epic battle scenes – Cheang has added another distinct piece of modern Hong Kong noir to the oeuvre, with the film winning the Purple Mulberry Award last week at the 23rd Far East Film Festival, in Udine, Italy, after making its world premiere in Berlin back in March. It will next showcase at the New York Asian Film Festival and the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia in August and October.

The film follows two passionate cops,  Cham Lau (played by Gordon Lam) and Will Ren (Mason Lee) as they attempt to track down a serial killer, and as a relationship between these two very different individuals develops.

But there’s also much focus played on what goes on between Cham and the woman who is the cause of his life’s woes, Wong To (Cya Liu), a young drug addict who was responsible for the deaths of the policeman’s wife and unborn child in an accident.

Cham takes his revenge, sometimes through violence, sometimes by using Wong To’s guilt to force her to betray the gang members who hold sway over her life, and her addictions.  “They’re alive because they want revenge or redemption. Their lives are defined by each other’s existence,” says Cheang, speaking via Zoom, with a cigarette constantly at hand, just as one of his characters might.

While Limbo will please fans of classic Hong Kong action, Cheang seems to look for more. Inspired by a Japanese photo album he found about police operations during the 1940s, he decided to strip the film of its colour towards the very end of post-production.

Shorn of that rich palette the focus centres instead on the actors’ adrenaline-fuelled performances and the pure emotion they portray on the big screen. But the beautifully edited and framed black and white tones still manage to bring out the unique textures of the city. “Hong Kong looks familiar, but also different at the same time,” says Cheang.

The 48-year-old director has spent much of the past 10 years in Mainland China making successful commercial action films such as Monkey King (2014), which grossed around US$180 million from the box office.

Limbo marks his return to Hong Kong cinema, and it’s tinged with nostalgia. The police stations and uniforms come in a 1970-80s style. There are vintage guns but Nokia cell phones from a closer past to create a contrast and to distance the audience from reality, says Cheang. “It was a challenge to mix up the new and the old in this production,” he says.

Born in Macau, Cheang moved to Hong Kong in the 1980s and grew up in sub-divided flats in the old districts which are vanishing in recent years as the city redevelops the poorer parts of town.

For Limbo he selected a few such locations – including Kwun Tong and To Kwa Wan – and he meticulously shot the streets and alleys from different angles, then added layers of shots over the top. It explains why the scenes feel familiar but different and why even for those from Hong Kong, there are constant confusion over where the action is actually taking place.

Adding to that is Cheang’s use of garbage. Cheang has memories of all the trash on the streets when he moved to Hong Kong. So the underbelly of the city is carefully staged with mounds of garbage, no matter whether they be in alleys, back streets or even on the podium level of a building. It’s everywhere. With heavy rain almost constant in the film, you can also almost smell the rot. There’s a sense of decay and of people being trap within it.

“Garbage was a thing once needed, used, and people throw it away afterwards,” says Cheang. ”It’s abandoned.”

So are the bodies that pile up, and the broken Buddha sculptures, and the neighbourhoods the city is witnessing being overtaken by redevelopment. “Everyone in the film is abandoned,” Cheang says. “This applies to Hong Kong the city as well. We’re all here waiting for a moment of redemption.”

Cheang kept the title of the source novel, Zhichi, for the Chinese title of the film. It translates to “the wisdom tooth” and in the film’s closing battles Will Ren loses the tooth that has been bothering him throughout. For some this might symbolise a breakthrough for the character but the director has another take on what the wisdom tooth reference is all about.

“The moment you realize it’s growing, your dentist will tell you to remove it,” he says. “But in a way, it’s kind of like your feelings, either of love or hate. When they come, they just come. We just don’t realize they’re already part of us.”

Limbo screened as part of Udine Far East Film Festival 2021, which ran from 24 June to 2 July in both physical and online formats.

Sakura Ip is a member of the #FEFF23 Campus 2021. The campus is run each year, allowing young journalists from all over the world to cover the festival. You can find out more about the campus here.

About the author

Andrew HeskinsAndrew Heskins Sakura Ip
An anchor and bilingual (Cantonese & Mandarin) broadcast journalist based in Hong Kong. She enjoys telling stories with a pen and camera.

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