Septet: The Story of Hong Kong is a thematic anthology film featuring 7 vignettes from Hong Kong directors Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Woo Ping, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, each telling a story about Hong Kong spanning from the 1950s to present day to the future.
Like a 7-part medley, Septet plays a nostalgic and sentimental song about Hong Kong and achieves harmony between its 7 filmmakers. The shorts are strongest at their most personal but not without moments of dissonance.
Sammo Hung's Exercise, is an endearing and playful story revisiting his Peking Opera school days. A young Sammo, as the lead student in the Seven Fortunes opera troupe, lets the children slack off from the brutal training one afternoon and learns a lesson. Exercise was about how hardworking Hong Kong people had to be in the 1950's to make a living during hard times.
Ann Hui's Headmaster, a story about the unspoken mutual admiration between a principal and teacher in the 1960s, is poignant and moving. With great performances from Francis Ng and Sire Ma, Headmaster is the most artistically satisfying out of the seven stories with the intricate depth it achieves within its short runtime. Ann Hui masterfully captures an untouchable connection between two people that is distinctly Chinese.
Patrick Tam's Tender is the Night, about a teenage couple being separated from emigration in the 80's, is an idea that would have played stronger as a feature. The romantic atmosphere between the two leads, despite doing a solid job, needed more time to breathe. Due to the limited time, the story ends up being more told than shown and veers into being unintentionally pretentious.
Yuen Woo Ping's Homecoming is about a lonely kung fu-practicing grandpa connecting with his granddaughter temporarily staying with him to finish her studies before emigrating in 1997. It's a cute and touching story with a little throwback to kung fu movies.
Homecoming was my personal favorite. The story mirrors my own experience of staying with my grandmother studying for the SATs in my teens and captures the mood of Hong Kong people emigrating before 1997. Yuen Woo Ping deals with a sad topic, the elderly being alone, in a heartwarming way.
Johnnie To's Bonaza, a story about three friends that collaborate in endless get-rich-quick schemes amidst the 2003 SARS outbreak. Its literal Chinese title being "Land of Gold", Bonaza breaks from the film's streak of local sentimentality and delves into self-reflection about the wealth-chasing behavior in Hong Kong. Johnnie To shows the condition instead of inserting his own views and outdoes 2011's Life Without Principle with much more subtlety.
Ringo Lam's Astray, about a middle-aged man who returns to Hong Kong with his family from England hoping to retrace his father's footsteps with his old photographs amidst the modern and unrecognizable Hong Kong. Astray has the unfortunate disadvantage of Ringo Lam's passing, which the film salutes in the credits by framing his name in a box. It is unclear how much involvement Ringo Lam had in its post-production. That absence is felt as Astray grazes upon what it wants to say without firmly punctuating its point.
Tsui Hark's Conversation In Depth, a meta comedic short set in the future satirizing the present, is a bold and clever bookend. Through its metaphor of doctors and mental patients stuck in a hospital room, Tsui Hark releases his subconscious and asks the current generation, "What are we all doing?" and attacks a wide variety of current topics.
Like a painter applying the last drop of paint on a canvas, Conversation In Depth is a sharp and off-kilter way to end the film. Its ironic comedy went over my head at first with its offbeat surreal tone, but it played better the more I thought about all the things Tsui Hark pokes fun at in such a short time. This is Tsui Hark at his most disciplined.
I enjoyed 5 out of the 7 shorts. My order would be: Yuen Woo Ping, Ann Hui, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and Patrick Tam. I personally gravitated towards the sentimental episodes, and need to rewatch the cerebral ones, notably Tsui Hark and Johnnie To's.
Septet was a solid one-time watch full of nostalgic sentiment. For the Hong Kong audience, Septet is like aromatherapy; emanating small traces of scents and unlocking memories from within. I have lived through some of these images and felt these exact sentiments. I can best describe the experience as rifling through black-and-white photo albums with your parents and hearing their childhood stories in an afternoon.