Port of Call

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/09/15 11:01:12

"A tough place to stop."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Port of Call" looks like it's going to be a police procedural, and certainly acts like one during the early going. But then the answer to "who killed Wang Jiamei?" presents itself, and Aaron Kwok's Inspector Chong keeps investigating. At first it seems like he thinks Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning) may not have done it, or maybe this is another girl, but, no, he just wants to know why. But can one ever really understand this?

It's a gruesome murder, naturally, and a sordid one, with Jiamei (Chun Xia) a teenage girl who had only just immigrated to Hong Kong from Shilong, a rural town in Guangdong Province, though her mother May (Elaine Kam Yin-ling) and sister Jiali (Jacky Choi Kit) had arrived some years earlier, and her inability to fit in at school and aim of being a model was taking her down a dangerous path. With no body, initially the only indication that a murder has been committed is the amount of blood - with no apparent connection to Ting at all.

If Port of Call were primarily a mystery, the way that writer/director Philip Yung Chi-kwong goes about revealing what happened might be unsatisfying, but it's clear from early on that this is not his intent. Instead, he uses the form to bring out te history of Chong, Jiamei, and Ting. As that happens, the movie transforms, becoming a film about loneliness and isolation. Language, appearance, or obsession can be the source, but the emotion looks similar on all three characters, even if none of them is even in a situation where there are no other people in their lives.

All three primary cast members are impressive in their roles, earning empathy if not always sympathy for how overwhelmed they feel. Michael Ning is sometimes the most intriguing as the murderer, a lumpy object of derision who may be a crude gangster but still seems stung by just how how he's taken for granted, though never with simple rage. Chun Xia handles the adolescent variability of her flashback scenes with impressive style; it doesn't seem like such a long distance from the cheerful girl in a rural village to the one ground down by Hong Kong's demands and lack of accommodation. She manages to get the audience to feel both understanding and frustration at her for acting in a way that seems futile, even if the two should be contradictory.

A crime story tends to have the audience following the detective, though, and Aaron Kwok Fu-sing's Detective Chong is well worth that attention. He's worn down by the job and a similar case to this one seems to be the specific cause of his family having disintegrated, but Kwok seldom leans on the familiar trope of the disheveled cop, instead presenting Chong as often being empathetic but often focused to a fault. The story is his from the start, even if it doesn't seem that way, and Kwok keeps the audience focused upon Chong without overshadowing the rest.

Yung is impressive with his architecture, dividing his film into chapters but still giving himself room to jump back and forth in time. He fills in blanks as he goes, but not all of them, as there are many cases where it's not needed. Though the requisite parts of a crime drama are there - the nasty ends, the familiar types in the police station - Yung never gives them more time than they need. It makes for a sad experience, but not an overly meditative one.

When the film allows its characters a moment or two of hope, it suggests that loneliness is not necessary and may be overcome, at least in some cases. Yung doesn't back off what it will drive people to do, but that certainly keeps the film from being the simple crime story it might otherwise have been.

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