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Aberdeen (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"A director having a few growing Pangs."
3 stars

Is there a term for when directors like Pang Ho-cheung who have thrived, maybe not on the edge, but certainly in a part of the film industry where things are less polished and more open to eccentricity, do something bigger and more serious and have it not quite measure up to their previous works? That's kind of what happens here; "Aberdeen" doesn't neuter Pang's quirky nature, but it could use a little focusing.

The focus it has is on the Cheng family, who presumably all live in Aberdeen, Hong Kong. Sister Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung Chin-wah) is a tour guide at a local museum, seemingly unaware of the affair her husband Yau Kin-cheung (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) is having with his nurse, in part because she's still hung up on how her mother still seems to hate her from beyond the grave. Her brother Wai-tao (Louis Koo Tin-lok) is a "tutor" (more of a motivational speaker) married to Ceci (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), a model and actress who didn't seem to pass her looks on to their daughter Chloe (Lee Man-kwai). Their father Dong (Ng Man-tat) is a Taoist priest, although that is not incompatible with spending much of his time with Ta (Carrie Ng Ka-lai), a dancer who has graduated to running her own nightclub in her middle age.

There's not much of a story to the movie, per se, no thing that must be accomplished or tragedy that throws the family into disarray. The focus eventually seems to drift toward Tao, Ceci, and Chloe because there's kind of an interesting dynamic going on there. Tao calls his daughter "Piggy", worries about her paternity, and spends a lot of effort on toughening her up because she won't be able to get men to do things for her just as Ceci is starting to find it a little harder to get work. That's an interesting if sort of gross set of issues, enough to build the rest of the movie around, especially since Pang and the cast are able to tell that part of the story in a way that comes across as very genuine and individual rather than didactic, even if I'm not sure Tao necessarily draws the correct lesson from how George Lucas handled the stormtrooper who banged his head on a Death Star bulkhead when making the Special Edition of Star Wars.

And, yes, that is an actual metaphor used in the movie, because Tao is a big-time Star Wars collector. Wai-ching and Yau get their own big, obvious symbol - an unexploded bomb from World War II discovered during construction near their apartment - and most of the time, Pang's tendency toward the odd is put to good use. There are some fairly amusing scenes and nifty visual touches, the sort that make the lack of a strong story work: It's quite possible to be fairly content just watching the Cheng family muddle through stuff, although there are going to be moments where the audience is going to think that things certainly got too weird for comfort quickly.

I suspect that some of them will play better for the audience back home in Hong Kong and China; even with burnt offerings actually being a sort of plot point and the basis for what is arguably the movie's most memorable scene, it still feels like a bit of a reach for me to connect them to the intricate, mostly empty scale model of Aberdeen that Pang frequently cuts to. Those bits are pretty nifty, though, especially once Chloe's iguana Greenie gets involved, and highlight how this seems to be one of the slickest, most commercial things Pang has done. He's famously worked fast and cheap to very good results on certain projects like Love in a Puff and Vulgaria, so it's a bit odd to see him doing something with a fair amount of special effects and tricky camera work (and some of the awkward product placement that helps pay for it). And while Pang's script stumbles on occasion, he and editor Wenders Li pace the movie well enough to let it slide, from the impressively cross-cut open on.

Pang is also able to assemble a nice cast, even if some of his returning collaborators - Chapman To, Dada Chan, and Shawn Yue - are mostly there for little more than cameos. Louis Koo, for instance, is able to take a character who is, in a number of ways, kind of a tool and convince the audience to give him a certain amount of benefit of the doubt, while Gigi Leung makes a woman whose issues are fairly specific and disconnected from the audience very down-to-earth, and the way their parenting styles (among other things) clash and contrast is often more interesting than it might be. Miriam Yeung is impressively fragile as Wai-ching; she's got to break down a couple of times in the middle of a movie that is fairly restrained otherwise without the dramatics seeming out of place, and mostly does all right. Lee Man-kwai has a fairly solid debut as Chloe, and Eric Tsang, Ng Man-tat, and Carrie Ng each get scenes that imply they could have done more if Pang needed it.

It's kind of odd that a movie that likely had a lot more hours of preparation and production than some of the director's other recent efforts winds up feeling like it could have used a little more thought put into it, even with everyone doing their job well. Maybe that level of thinking it through blunted Pang's satirical instincts, or maybe it's just a case of how what makes a hypothetical filmmaker respected and what makes an individual one interesting are often two very different things. "Aberdeen" is a decent movie, the sort one might recommend to someone who wants to see a quality film at the multiplex, but it's not the best its maker can do.

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originally posted: 05/11/14 07:11:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ho-Cheung Pang

Written by
  Ho-Cheung Pang

  Miriam Yeung
  Louis Koo
  Eric Tsang
  Gigi Leung
  Man Tat Ng
  Dada Chan
  Chapman To
  Man-kwai Lee

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