City of Glass
Reviewed by Lok Kerk Hwang and Foong Ngai Hoe
Chinese Title: Boli zhi cheng
Writing Credits: Alex Law
Cast: Nicola Cheung, Vincent Kok, Leon Lai, Audrey Mak, Shu Qi, Daniel Wu
Country: Hong Kong
Language: English, Mandarin
Year Released: 1998
Rating: Weak Script, Fond Memories
"Never thought my father was in the Diaoyu Island demonstrations."
"I was told my grandfather fought the Japanese."
"My great grandfather even took part in Sun Yat-Sen's revolution against the Qing."
"That's really something. We? What have we done to be proud of?"
The conversation above involving second-generation youths in City of Glass best reflects the self-doubt young people in Hong Kong suffer today, and perhaps is the most impressionable point of the film.
Following her film, The Soong Sisters, director Mabel Cheung Wan Ting's City of Glass is a love-story that spans two generations. Cheung, together with her schoolmate Luo Qi Yue, chose to set their tale in bustling Hong Kong amidst the sixties and the nineties, sparked by nostalgia over the demolition of Ho Dong Lau, one of Hong Kong University's old campus.
Amid the wreckage of an accident in London, the police finds the bodies of an Asian couple locked in an embrace. It turns out both were married with families of their own overseas. When the news of their deaths reaches the couple's respective families, they refuse to fly to London to identify the bodies, but finally consent to send a son and daughter over instead. It's during the meeting of these two youths that the story unfolds in flashbacks.
From feuding families, the boy and the girl predictably don't get along very well once in London, each blaming the other's parent for the tragedy. However, on their flight back to Hong Kong (to settle the property jointly-owned by their deceased parents), they read through the police reports and discover the past their errant parent had withheld from them -- a past which changes the way they see each other.
City of Glass, simply put, is about an extramarital affair. Although Cheung tries to inject some authenticity into the film by bringing in the Diaoyu Islands disputes and the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, this insipid film still fails to rise to the occasion. Cheung appears to have dispensed logic while trying to have us empathise with Leon Lai and Hsu Chi's affair. For instance, both Lai and Hsu are happily married with children before their reunion, yet have no conflicting thoughts about leaving their families for each other once they've rekindled the flame. Even the adulterous pair in Yoshimitsu Moria's Lost Paradise was more conscientious. Frankly that's as much reality as you will see through Cheung's tinted spectacles.
Lai and Hsu take on characters aged between 20 and 40, and although both gave convincing performances, they are handicapped by their age differences. Hsu Chi, only 22, is wonderful as a bubbly university student in the film, but struggles when put into the shoes of a woman in her forties. Vice versa when it comes to Lai. Still, Lai's performance earned him a nomination for the Best Actor category in the 35th Golden Horse Awards and the Berlin Film Festival, so that speaks volume of his acting in City of Glass. New faces Daniel Ng and Nicola Cheung are commendable themselves as the lovers' children -- they would've shone in the film had the script given them more opportunity.
As a cinematic showpiece, City of Glass has its moments with some dazzling art direction, particularly in capturing the nostalgia of the sixties and seventies. Whether it's in the lighting or cinematography, Ho Dong Lau has never looked this beautiful.
With 11 nominations at the 35th Golden Horse Awards, Chueng's City of Glass has set an otherwise glum Hong Kong film industry alight. But whether it can go on to rival Peter Chen's Comrades, Almost a Love Story, we can only wait and see.