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NYAFF 2015, Day 1: Aaron Kwok Investigates the Dangers of Apathy in Port of Call

By  · Published on June 27th, 2015

Mei Ah Entertainment

The New York Asian Film Festival returns for a 14th year showcasing an exciting and eclectic mix of movies from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Malaysia. This year brings a total of 54 feature films including two world premieres and three international premieres, and while I’m once again unfortunately unable to experience the fest on the ground in NYC I’m excited to cover as much as I can remotely.

Day one of the festival features two films, China’s A Fool and Hong Kong’s Port of Call.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

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Det. Chong (Aaron Kwok) is a department veteran who’s seen the worst the people of Hong Kong have to offer, but his most recent case just may be the one that sends him into a spiral he won’t return from. He’s called to a bloody crime scene only to discover that there’s no body – the amount of blood and gore confirms a murder has occurred, but it’s not until their sole suspect confesses that they discover where the remains have gone. Ting Chi-sung (Michael Ning) reveals that he dismembered a teenage girl, flushed the pieces into the sewer and tossed her head into the sea. As for why he did it, he claims the girl simply wanted to die, but that’s a reason Chong just can’t comprehend.

Flashing back one year we meet Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li), a typical high school girl – singing pop songs, bantering with her sister, arguing with her mother – but beneath the outward appearance sits a growing sadness. She’s listless and unhappy with a lack of money and romantic attention, and her plans on becoming a model succeed only in getting a part-time job shilling for the modeling agency. It’s not long before she enters the sex industry as a paid escort, but still the loneliness remains.

Writer/director Philip Yung’s latest is a bleakly methodical mix of police procedural and social commentary with a basis in a real world incident, but in both halves – especially the former – we’re given most of the information up front. The film moves back and forth in time – the months before Jiamei’s death and the months after – following her descent into suffocating ennui, Chi-sung’s struggles with his own emotional demons and Chong’s refusal to close a case even after all the facts are accounted for.

Chong, and by extension Yung, wants to explore and maybe understand what leads to such a disaffected attitude as evidenced by the two young adults. Why would a teenage girl simply want to give up, and how could a young man so nonchalantly carve up and throw away a human being? Chong is older and wiser but in many ways just as isolated emotionally. He’s separated and hardly gets to spend time with his own young daughter, and as he digs deeper into this case the toll it takes becomes clear.

“He looks like a ghost,” says a fellow detective, and while his physical appearance is a big part of that Kwok deserves equal praise for crafting a character greater than the sum of his facial hair and constantly slipping glasses. Kwok’s detective is weary but determined, socially adept but isolated by choice, and above it all he’s a tangible presence. His quirks are more unique than the traditional – he takes pictures of himself at crime scenes and in witness’ homes – and while his singular focus is familiar the eventual release of emotion is not. A scene visualizing his frustration at being unable to prevent Jiamei’s death reveals the helpless rage he normally keeps in check.

As shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle this is Hong Kong from the street level, a world mostly devoid of casual joy and peace. It’s a softly photographed film highlighting the harsh edges of a society valuing perception over reality, and it’s undeniably both beautiful and ugly. Much of the latter is present in Yung’s insistence on showing us some of the crime’s grislier details.

The film’s structure and pacing work more often than they don’t, but there’s an undeniable drag through some of its two hour running time. Chong’s personal life serves its purpose here, but we return to it more than necessary, and the same can be said of Jiamei’s failed romance. These elements could be trimmed to tighten the experience overall.

Port of Call is not a happy film, nor is it a fast-paced thriller – instead it’s an emotional slowburn more interested in how a crime could come to pass than in the details of the crime itself. It ends, perhaps unfairly, with minor moments of hope and joy. For some they’ll ring false, but for others these final moments will ring necessary.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.