An entertaining trip through the social and economic ups and downs of nearly a quarter of a century in Hong Kong – as seen through the more literal ups and downs of a hooker…
Nowhere in the world is a country more transparently depicted in its cinema than Hong Kong. Not even Hollywood so honestly displays its national concerns on screen. In the late eighties, for instance, those concerns didn’t come any more significant than the imminent handover of Hong Kong from the British Empire back to mainland China. A pessimistic attitude reflected in the heroic bloodshed genre movies. This turned to total escapism after the Tiananmen Square incident as swordplay/fantasy enjoyed a popularity previously unmatched.
When 1997 finally came along Hong Kong cinema became staunchly patriotic towards the mainland – which rang somewhat untrue against their previous stance. It also brought lean years for movie production, as investors feared the worse. But the worse didn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite. Before too long Hong Kong became aware of its strengths. Cosmopolitan by default, a mass of different cultures brought together by a mainly Chinese, but also still very colonial society.
It’s an over simplification, of course, but more recently that self-esteem has been reflected on screen. Hong Kong filmmakers are delighting in using their own backyard as a location, rather than just having to use it by default. Take the Peter Chan (He’s a Man, She’s A Woman) produced The Eye, directed by the Pang Brothers, which makes great use of the Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. This was also the case in last years all-out action movie So Close. Locally thought to be a little too western, it still paradoxically had a very ‘eastern styled’ romantic subplot, which could have come straight out of a girlie magazine. It also had a soundtrack that included both Canto and western pop sung by its star Karen Mok – and Burt Bacharach at that.
That Golden Chicken, also produced by Peter Chan, even exists is a testament to Hong Kong’s self-confidence, as it charts the economic and social ups and downs of over 20 years there through the more literal ups and downs of a prostitute (known locally as ‘chickens’) called Kam (or Gam, which means ‘gold’ in Cantonese).
When a power cut traps Kam (Sandra Ng) in an ATM booth with perhaps the most inept robber ever (Eric Tsang) – she even asks him to transfer 2 dollars into her account so she actually has enough to take money out – she decides to recount her adventures from a life spent in the sex trade.
Unsurprisingly for Hong Kong, much of the history is told through cultural references from entertainment. It’s worth keeping in mind that long before the cynical Scream generation of kids immersed themselves in film trivia, Hong Kong children grew up with massively self referential films and media. Films tend to be full of in jokes lost on usually western audiences.
From Kam time as a hostess, when she made up for her looks by copying Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master techniques, to the present day, history is interjected with footage from the television of the time. Giving us a chance to see a young stars like Chow Yan Fat, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in early appearances.
The film is also full of cameo’s from several of today’s top Hong Kong Stars. Aside from Eric Tsang, who executively produced and is nigh on impossible to avoid there right now, there are also appearances from popstar Eason Chan and megastar Andy Lau – who appears as himself in a massage parlour where Kam works, as she recounts a time when curiosity about the size of his, erm, endowment gets the better of her. He later also appears as a vision crawling out of her TV screen, encouraging her on how to become the ‘golden chicken’ – at the very pinnacle of her profession. Most bizarre of all is a heavily disguised appearance from Tony Leung Ka-fai, last seen in Zhou Yu’s Train, as Professor Chan, who likes to recount mathematical formulas whilst Kam uses her patented ‘one handed grip’.
The production of the period clothing is some of the best since In the Mood for Love. Art director Pater Wong and production designer Yee Chung-man perhaps rather too lovingly recreating cheesy 70s disco and even more terrifyingly 80s fashion, complete with big hair and bigger shoulder pads.
Through it all Sandra Ng plays Kam with a childlike effervescence, her boundless energy overcomes the broad nature of the comedy that might usually turn many a western viewer off. She also brings a great depth, particularly when this career minded girl accidentally falls pregnant and decides to find the baby a father – even though she will never see the child.
Director and co-wrter (with Matt Chow) Samson Chiu injects a lot of heart and even maturity into what initially appears to be little more than a collection of Carry On style antidotes, tackling the subject of a life in the world oldest profession without judgment. Golden Chicken is a loving look at a continually growing Hong Kong. However appropriate the metaphor, Kam, like her country, is noble and plucky, a survivor and ultimately a winner.
Though a little too episodic in nature to be entirely successful it’s well played and an entertaining insight into how the country see’s itself. This is something a little different that’s definitely worth a look.
Golden Chicken screens at the New York Asian Film Festival 2014 (NYAFF), with a introduction and Q&A with Sandra NG.
Home media details
Distributor: Panorama (Hong Kong)
Great transfer of the film comes with disc of bonus features, including a 'Making of', trailers and outtakes.