Friday, January 1, 2010

Review – Mary from Beijing

January 1, 2010

Mary from Beijing – Hong Kong, 1993

Sylvia Chang’s Mary from Beijing is not a political film, and yet it is probably impossible to watch the film and not view it in the context of historical events. The film is set in the first part of the 1990’s, a few years after the events of June 4, 1989, and about five years before Great Britain handed Hong Kong back to Mainland China. More than once do characters discuss the prevailing culture of greed that they see around them. One character can’t understand it; the other attributes it to people’s sense of insecurity. Make them feel safe, he reasons, and many problems will disappear. At other times, we hear of characters that left Hong Kong for Britain and have no plans to ever return. And then there’s the film’s main character, Mary (Gong Li), a young single woman who sought something better for himself and relocated to Hong Kong. Exactly why she made this decision is never clearly explained, but she’s young enough to have been disillusioned by the events of 1989.

As is often the case, the life we set out to get for ourselves and the life we end up getting are often as different as night and day, and that is unfortunately the case for Mary. Unable to work legally because she has yet to be approved for legal residence, she find herself stuck in an unhappy relationship with a successful jewelry dealer named Peter (Wilson Lam), who is too cowardly to introduce her to his father. At a party, he spends more time with his friends and co-workers than with Mary and even has the nerve to use a karaoke microphone to ask her to put more alcohol out. She’s essentially a hostess in her own apartment. When Mary voices her discontent, Peter either tells her to go shopping or brings home an expensive piece of jewelry for her. These monetary pleasures have their desired effect in the beginning, but it’s clear that they are losing their appeal.

No film with two characters such as these would be complete without a third character with whom Mary could compare Peter and see him for the spoiled, immature child that he is. Enter Kwok Wai (Kenny Bee), a somewhat wealthy businessman who has just returned to Hong Kong and has visions of expanding his business ventures into Mainland China. His principle area of expertise appears to be toilet tissue, and later in the film we see him traveling through Mainland China, testing the toilet paper both being sold by vendors and being used at hotels and businesses. Kwok Wai sees Hong Kong’s return to China as being positive both financially and culturally. Therefore, he is not opposed to returning to what he considers the “motherland.” His wife, on the other hand, is of a different opinion and has initiated divorce proceedings. Kwok Wai and Mary develop a very deep friendship, and under the right conditions, it’s clear that it could develop into something more.

One of the best parts of Mary from Beijing has to do with Kwok Wai’s business trip to Mainland China, during which he visits Mary’s parents and brings them gifts and a letter from Mary. Mary’s parents treat him as if they have known him forever, and because of his friendship with Mary, they now feel they can stop worrying about her well-being. As for moving to Hong Kong themselves, they quietly dismiss the idea, reasoning that they are too old and that they’re content with their lives as they are. It is only the brief mentioning of the Cultural Revolution that gives Mary’s father pause to reflect on their less than idyllic pasts. Later as Kwok Wai returns to Beijing, his taxi driver turns to him and points out Tiananmen Square. Kwok Wai says simply, “I know.” We do, too.

Hong Kong and China are both presented in fairly decent lights in the film. Hong Kong’s landscape appears beautiful, and its cities are clean and bustling with life. Likewise, Beijing is filled with kind-hearted government officials and friendly, jovial citizens. This makes Kwok Wai’s decisions seem all the more reasonable. Chang’s script is interesting, for the most part. I could have done without the eccentric young man who rides the elevator all the time or some of the over-the-top walk-ons. There may be people like this in Hong Kong, but in movies, they seem to exist for the sole purpose of adding comic relief to films. However, in a movie like Mary from Beijing, such light moments are a distraction from the main story, which – to be honest - could have used another ten or fifteen minutes of screen time.

Prior to starring in Mary from Beijing, Gong Li had made nine films, four of which received enormously positive reviews in western countries. Mary from Beijing was not one of these films. In fact, according to the Internet Movie Database, with the exception of a film festival in Canada, the film never opened outside of Hong Kong. For years, I had looked for a copy of it and only succeeded in finding it on VCD without English subtitles. It is now available on DVD from Fortune Star as part of their Legendary Collection line of Hong Kong films. While it lacks the raw power and emotion of many of Gong Li’s more well-known films, it is nonetheless a film that is worth taking a look at. (on DVD)

3 stars

*Mary from Beijing is in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English with English subtitles.

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