Hong Kong film director Mabel Cheung, whose short film "Indigo"… (John Chu )
HONG KONG -- What is beautiful? Four celebrated Asian filmmakers tackle the question in “Beautiful 2013,” a quartet of short films at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which wraps up Tuesday.
The Chinese video site Youku and the festival jointly commissioned the film following their initial collaboration last year, “Beautiful 2012.” That movie ended up touring to more than 20 film festivals and garnered more than 16 million hits on Youku in China.
“Beautiful 2013” gives a new take on the same subject in an engrossing if uneven patchwork of short films. Each deals with the essence of beauty in the eye of the director.
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For Kiyoshi Kurosawa from Japan, beauty comes in the form of a brutal femme fatale working on a building site who has a mysterious background and a knack for kung fu. For Lu Yue from China, it is an ancient fable about the difference between good and evil. And for Wu Nien-jen from Taiwan, it is contained in the fragile connections of ordinary family life.
Contributing from Hong Kong is Mabel Cheung, director of the critically acclaimed “The Soong Sisters.” In her short film “Indigo,” Cheung marries scenes of frenetic modern-day Hong Kong with a dance hall that clings to the past; it's all set on Christmas Eve. In the former, flashing billboards light up crowds; in the latter, elderly couples cha-cha.
Melding the two worlds is a glamorous dance hall teacher past her prime who is played with grace and subtlety by veteran Taiwanese actress Elaine Jin. Dressed in flowing gowns and strappy heels -- with a voice like molten chocolate -- she must not only conjure an aura of effortless chic for her clientele but also care for her two children, one of whom is autistic.
“The film shows an indigo future and a golden past,” says Cheung, speaking in a gritty district of Kowloon at the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild. “In Cantonese, autistic children are called ‘deep blue’ children. [Some say] these indigo children are sent from space with a special mission to guide the world to the future. The dance world, all these people live in a world of the past. I wanted to combine these two groups of people living on the edge of society.”
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Cheung found inspiration in an altogether different project -- a documentary about a group of Hong Kong schoolgirls the director is following over a six-year period. One teenage girl, who has an 8-year-old autistic brother, provided the source for the film’s emotional tension: anger and resentment against a sibling who commands their mother’s attention, which, through a crisis, gives way to appreciation.
Real life is merged with fiction. Cheung remembers once remarking on the girl’s rebellious independence. The girl retorted: “Ever since I was 6 years old, my mother has had no time for me. Actually, I have had no mother. She is my brother’s mother.” The words are rejigged as lines in the film. The two siblings act their fictional counterparts.
Above all, “Indigo” is concerned with loss and gain. Many scenes are set in a sultry dance hall. Cheung filmed at Hong Kong’s Cha Cha Moon, a legendary establishment in the shopping and commercial district of Causeway Bay that was facing closure due to rising rent. All the dancers featured in the film are regulars, many of whom had danced at Cha Cha Moon for decades.
“These dancers don’t have any place to dance now,” Cheung said. “All these people who agreed to do the dance hall scene for me knew this dance hall is going to disappear tomorrow. They were very nostalgic about it that night. They want to keep the memory, at least on film.”