Dir. Philip Yung | Feature Presentation | Hong Kong | 120 minutes
Nov 11 8:45 pm | AGO Jackman Hall
Rarely do the words thriller and poignancy manage to mend well in film, but Port of Call attempts to pull off this very scenario. The end result: a solid weaving of both these elements — albeit imperfectly.
Based on a true crime, the Hong Kong film tells the murder story of a young girl named Jiawei. Set in 2010, it is a story of the past and the not-so-distant past. On one hand, we follow the eccentric detective Chong who pieces together the motives behind Jiawei’s gruesome death, digging deeper into Hong Kong’s criminal cesspool. Simultaneously, we are treated to Jiawei’s past leading up to her death: from an enthusiastic teenager hoping to hit it big in modelling to a financially and socially deprived prostitute. As both stories develop throughout the film, we get a clearer picture of both characters’ struggles… and the one ultimately behind the murder as well.
Admittedly, Port of Call has plenty of rough edges as a crime film. There are awkward and clumsy stylistic choices made in its editing, music, shot sequences, etc. Rather than providing fear or tension for the viewer, these moments come off, at times, as corny and generic. This problem is especially prominent with the film’s first half that tries too much in evoking the crime-thriller vibe. With the chase scenes, the “good cop, bad cop” interrogations, the grotesque violence, the film not only comes off as cliché but looks as if it is trying too hard. Thus, it risks losing the attention of any viewer who has been there before. This does not make it a failure — in fact, it still works to an extent — but it feels tentatively unremarkable nonetheless.
However, despite its first half, the second half of the film is by all means brilliant, as if it turning into a different movie altogether. Though some odd stylistic quirks remain, the tone gradually becomes more simple and focused. Best of all, the film turns to a compelling, intimate deconstruction of its characters. This is especially true with its coverage on Jiawei, whose tragic downfall is not just surprisingly emotionally investing, but worthy of standing separate from the rest of the film. Avoiding spoilers, the other two important character arcs further explored in this latter half are also poignant to a lesser extent.
The most important surprise of all is that, despite its weak start, the film provides exceptional social commentary later on. It comes off too heavy-handed sometimes, but its tackling of themes like mainstream media, self-worth and the fragility of relationships provide a unique source of emotional depth. Additionally, the handling of these ideas is well-executed, and the film culminates into a poetic dénouement by the end. Even before that, the way it taps into these themes makes it oddly moving, despite the morbid imagery.
Over all, Port of Call is by no means a perfect film as made evident by its stumbling first half. Yet, it’s not every day that a crime film successfully prioritizes character and thematic depth over suspense or graphic content. That alone makes it worthy to be given a chance.