Thursday, July 29, 2010

Family Plot

Story of My Son (Johnnie To, 1990)

To's first collaboration with indefatigable scenarist / hero of modern cinema Wai Ka-Fai, synopsized (not that that does much good, even for this 75 minute [!] movie): the decline of a widowed (not that the kids know) banker who borrows money from vicious loan sharks after losing his savings in a harebrained horse-betting scheme. A tidbit that leads to something bigger: Story of My Son doesn't start "looking like a Johnnie To movie" (or looking like what Johnnie To movies have looked like since the mid-1990s: an odd mix of neons and funereal colors, with a lot of lively decay in the production design and lurching movements of a camera equipped with a wide-angle lens) until things get really bad and our three-person family unit (father, older son, younger son) hit rock bottom. (Also, as a To variation on a Luigi Comencini movie, was Story of My Son made for me?). Here's how To's group dynamics work (as true of families / marriages in his movies as of the gangs and police squads): individuals struggle as a group towards a shared goal while dealing with struggles of their own (often consciences) the other members of the group are incapable of helping them with. The group constantly buckles and resettles under the weight of individual pressures. The family plunges, but the father and older son have their own descents, too. Bullied and humiliated, they move through a succession of increasingly slummy apartments, eventually ending up in a doorless shack on a roof. By this point, their evenly-lit, upper-middle-class Hong Kong transforms into the massive (in the sense that it seems so much bigger than any one person) / tiny (in the sense that there's no place to hide) city familiar from the movies To and Wai would go on to make together, and they have transformed into post-war Italians.


Doniphon said...

I just caught up with Vengeance, and that really sad, wonderful moment in which Hallyday holds up the polaroids in the rain, trying to make sense of who he's looking at, seems to demonstrate what you're talking about here in terms of group dynamics and the individuals not being able to help one another. I need to see this one.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

I guess I should expand this little (since I wrote this at 4 am, I can now see it needs a little more) and say that in To's films, individuals help each other with their goals (that's the plot of Vengeance, of course, but of plenty of other To / Wai movies, too) but there's always something others can't help with.

As for the movie: Shaw Brothers put out a good English-subtitled DVD of Story of My Son.