A Reflection on Mabel Cheung’s A TALE OF THREE CITIES (CAAMFest 2016)

A Tale of Three Cities was initially pitched to me as “the story of Jackie Chan’s parents,” and that was all I needed to hear. While I have only seen a few of Jackie Chan’s movies, I knew enough about him to like him for his personality as well as his moves, so I was ready to see this one. Imagine my surprise when, by the end of A Tale of Three Cities, he was only mentioned as an afterthought in the last two minutes of the film.

Surprise, certainly. And yet this masterpiece of a film is so tautly constructed, so emotionally raw and organic, so perfectly executed, that Jackie’s relative absence was (and is) inconsequential to me. (No offense intended, Mr. Chan.) I assure you that no matter how exuberant my praise may sound, this film deserves every word of it.

A Tale of Three Cities was the centerpiece narrative film and the spotlight event of CAAMFest 2016. Director Mabel Cheung (whom one of my fellow board members called “the Spielberg of Hong Kong” and whose works also include Illegal Immigrant, An Autumn Tale, and The Soong Sisters) was introduced with her writer-husband, Alex Law. Together, they gave some background on the film before it was screened, including the film’s genesis. According to an amusing anecdote, Jackie Chan called Law to invite him to spend Chinese New Year with him (Chan) in Australia, all expenses paid by Chan. In exchange, Chan requested that Law and Cheung create a “home video” about Chan’s family. It wasn’t until later, Law chuckled, that he realized that this “home video” would require far more than a few cameras and a minimal crew. According to Law and Cheung, the film-making process also helped Chan learn things about his parents that he never knew otherwise, mostly because of a language barrier. “How could you survive without understanding your father?” they asked Chan. It is reported that Chan replied, “That’s how I survived!”

However, in the first few minutes of the film, all lightheartedness seemed to evaporate. The film opens with the establishment of a cutthroat hierarchy, a Japanese air raid, explosions, and crumbling clock towers. Gritty characters of questionable morality, spy action scenes, executions, shifting family dynamics, and complicated love affairs all manage to integrate themselves seamlessly into A Tale of Three Cities after thatmaking for a story so gripping that I found myself physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of it. I could fill several pages with praise on stunning cinematography and excellent dialogue, but I will limit myself to just a few of the most memorable parts for me:

  • The female protagonist, Yeurong, and her two daughters search for Yeurong’s first husband among a pile of bodies and collapsed buildings in the beginning of the film. One of the daughters, sobbing, recounts when she last saw her father, explaining that she delivered his lunch box and was leaving when the air raid started. It’s easy enough to predict the father’s fate when she explains this, but to see these two little girls, each looking no older than five, sobbing as they scream, “Here he is!” broke my heart, and that’s not the half of it. The father’s lunch box, upturned with contents splattered about, is a scene of carnage in itself, a highly-loaded image foreshadowing the father’s fate. As if this isn’t answer enough, the camera pans a short distance to the right to show his gray, bloody face; he was crushed to death by a concrete clock face, which fell from a building near his station. The theme of distorted time recurs later in the film and in many different forms, ranging from brief slow-motion to draw out a moment to bombs fashioned from watches, but this first occurrence still haunts me with its power. As soon as I saw this sequence, I knew that I was in for an emotional ride I was not prepared for.
  • Throughout the film, there were several transition shots of natural settings: tree branches, blackened by silhouette, against a cloudy white sky, reflected in a tranquil pond; a softly bubbling waterfall over polished stones below a pink sky; a small boat gliding across a pristine lake. While I could not ponder their significance for long, being so bombarded with other glorious details, these shots were breathtaking.
  • Some movies can go overboard with their action sequences. Don’t get me wrong, I love chases and fight scenes as much as the next moviegoer (after all, I’m an avowed Marvel fan), but even I have my limits. A Tale of Three Cities has a wonderful action sequence involving the male protagonist, Daolong, and his rebel spy cohorts against a small army of Japanese soldiers. Martial arts, gunfire, and a chase through a bamboo thicket are cut short by a sudden play by Daolong’s team to “wait it out” until morning. Where the action stops, suspense takes over, as Daolong’s team must stay quiet in order to avoid being killed despite a swarm of mosquitoes biting them all over. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but I will say that it felt like a second climax in the film and was very well-constructed, not too long or drawn out. My adrenaline was pumping…and I’m glad that I wasn’t eating anything during the “resolution” of this mini-arc.
  • Despite this film’s serious nature, it also manages to insert great comedic moments. From the protagonists offering their four young children some hard liquor to finding out that some “blood” in the water is actually chili sauce seeping from a destroyed container, there are many twists that help dispel the tension in the quirkiest ways. Needless to say, I loved them.
  • The final climax of the film – and how many there were, I couldn’t even count at the time – contains some gorgeous underwater cinematography that really highlights the chemistry between Daolong and Yeurong. Yeurong’s lullaby, first introduced diegetically much earlier in the film and recurring non-diegetically ever since, returns one last time as Daolong lovingly sweeps away the hair floating around Yeurong’s face, and despite being a little bit long (I found myself thinking, “Get her to the surface, or she’ll drown!”), this sequence was very intimate and touching.

The epilogue came immediately after that underwater moment, which actually caught me by surprise. When I realized the film was ending, I was torn between being relieved (just because I wasn’t sure how much more emotional trauma I could take in a sitting) and needing to know more about Daolong’s and Yeurong’s later lives (to end on such a note! With so many unanswered questions!).

Anyway, among other things, the epilogue reveals that in 1954, Yeurong gave birth to a son named Gangsheng, meaning “born in Hong Kong.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent of Jackie Chan’s presence in the film.

A Tale of Three Cities is the most powerful film I have ever seen, and it’s because it assaulted my emotions so much that I loved it. (I’m a masochist when it comes to stories. The more they make me cry, the better I say they are.) Even a month after CAAMFest has ended, I still think about this film very often, and I greatly look forward to the day I’ll see it again. Here’s hoping for a speedy distribution in the West. I recommend this film to everyone who wants to witness a powerful true story, with one piece of advice: have tissues and comforting food and drink on hand. Trust me.

CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Okita’s works, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!

– Jeana Braun


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