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Moss, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not a fairy tale, but making the effort."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "The Moss" opens with a little girl narrating a fairy tale, about a princess with a green gemstone who is abducted by a demon the be saved by a knight. By the time it's finished, the time for such stories will have passed. After all, Derek Kwok's second feature doesn't take place in some fairy kingdom, but in one of Hong Kong's slums.

There is a green gemstone, which fat Kei has purchased for his mother, the crime boss of a local neighborhood. On the way home, he stops for a few minutes with a prostitute, which turns out to be a really bad idea - there's a police raid, during which the gem flies away, he hits the girl, and though she doesn't start that fight, she sure finishes it. The gem lands at the feet of Fa (Si Suet-yee), an 11-year-old girl who has come to live with her big sister, a fellow hooker named Lulu (Bonnie Xian), and join the business if it will make her money. When Kei doesn't make it home, "Chong mom" (Susan Shaw) takes action - first calling in a favor from former undercover cop Jan (Shawn Yue), then dispatching a homeless assassin (Fan Siu-wong) to take out the rival she thinks is responsible, "Four-Eye" Tong (Liu Kai-chi). All hell breaks loose, and Jan winds up in the middle of all of it.

There's actually even more than that going on; Kwok and his co-writers have a group of Pakistani armed robbers lurking in the background, too. The Moss is a busy film, especially in the beginning, as the filmmakers throw out a great many characters without tipping their hands too much about which ones will be important and/or active as things get going. Sure, we're likely going to see a certain amount of focus on Fa - she narrates the opening scene and a kid in the middle of a brothel is (hopefully) too unusual and delicate a storyline to consign to the background - but some characters make strong first impressions only to be knocked off minutes later.

Then there's Shawn Yue as Jan, who is introduced telling an exaggerated story of his sexual adventures to a colleague before he starts getting really involved in the plot. We're told he washed out of undercover operations, which makes sense because it's pretty clear that deception is not something that comes naturally to him. In fact, Yue plays Jan as perhaps a little dim; the script doesn't have Jan making a lot of mistakes, but Yue makes it clear that Jan is not going to come up with an optimal solution on his own. It's easy for the audience to get behind him, as his instincts tend to be to try and find the situation where nobody gets hurt, although he'd probably say that it was more about being practical than noble.

The other big impressions come from two characters who spend a surprising amount of time together. Si Suet-yee starts out playing a familiar note as Fa: She's small and uncommunicative, her face set in a frown of disapproval at the world around her. We can tell she's probably been on her own a lot even before her mother died. She's not totally cynical and lost yet, and Kwok does something interesting with her: Instead of having her wind up being the mature one, or making her story arc entirely about growing up (and there's pretty obvious symbolism for that going on), it's about her learning to cry and be scared and basically be a little girl. Fan Siu-wong, meanwhile, gets grimy as the nameless assassin, and there's palpable desperation in the way he attaches himself to Fa; Fan plays him as never having received much affection and thus almost absolutely irrationally attached to Fa after the small kindness she shows him.

Kwok does a nice job of streamlining the movie as he goes along; although there's still a lot of different plot threads in the air in the second half, we never stray too far from those three characters. He plays pretty rough - the fight scene that caps the action is especially brutal. It many ways, though, that makes the surprisingly plentiful moments of affection and sentimentality more genuine.

Indeed, despite all the violence, poverty and malaise we see in "The Moss", it is often hopeful, if not actually upbeat. Its characters may not get to live their lives in a fairy tale, but they can make things better.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17616&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/23/08 14:39:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Derek Kwok

Written by
  Derek Kwok

Cast
  Shawn Yue, Louis Fan, Bonnie Xian
  Lui Kai Chi
  Eric Tsang
  Susan Shaw



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