‘Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down’ Is a Minor Gem

‘Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down’ Is a Minor Gem
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What you need to know

'Memories, Drinks' shows how Hong Kong's turbulent history is still very much with us.

Hong Kong’s international image can seem dark and stormy. The latest attack on Hong Kong’s democracy only reinforces that image. But a new four-part anthology film counterbalances this by highlighting its human stories, tinged with memory.

From the creative duo of Leung Ming Kai and Kate Reilly — who wrote, directed, edited (with Marcus C.W. Chan), and produced — the evocatively titled Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down, is part of this year’s Golden Horse Film Festival. Though the 77-minute running time doesn’t allow for much narrative innovation, it’s still a well-executed minor gem of memories and their lingering effects.

“Forbidden City” follows a grandmother with dementia (Cheok Mei Leong) and Mia (Mia Mungil), an Indonesian caretaker hired by her son. Grandma spends her days repeating old stories, when the past arrives in a phone call inviting her to a reunion of refugees from the same village in Guangdong at the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Grandma insists on going despite her son’s orders to stay home, and Mia reluctantly follows. On the minibus, it transpires that she actually wants to visit her newly promoted son. Mia avoids the impending confrontation with her boss by manipulating her charge’s dementia, making her think they have already gone and returned.

Complementing the symmetrical plot is a symmetrical presentation in which shots are repeated, and Grandma tells the same stories coming and going, offering a metacommentary on the art of acting. Mia has a saintly patience, even asking follow-up questions. The most creative scene is when Mia realizes she can pull off her plan because their minibus follows a loop route. The realization is repeated thrice, slower each time, like in an internet video. But this merely highlights the structure’s artifice.

“Toy Stories” begins with a series of whimsical master shots of sidewalks traversed by two young men walking in sync, brothers played by Zeno Koo (younger) and Lam Yiu-Sing. They visit their family’s toy shop, where they spent their childhood, and which their mother wants to sell. Younger brother wants to take over, but he just lost his job and lacks capital. Older brother has a second child on the way and needs to save up for a bigger place. The two dance around their respective situations as they reminisce over memory-laden toys.

We feel that, as is often the case, the older sibling has his mind on his future, whereas the younger wants to resolve the past. Younger brother looks troubled, which older brother studiously ignores — until he can’t.

The camerawork is precise (cinematography by Leung and Siu Hing-Wah). The shop is tiny and stuffed with toys, so the realist blocking is no mean feat. Even when some angles are forced, the shots are thoughtfully composed.

Repeating the first section’s trick, “Toy Stories” closes with the same shot setups with which it begins. But then we get a coda: Younger brother has joined his sibling’s people mover business while running the toy store online. An enticing “to be continued” draws this section to an end.

The title of “Yuen Yeung” (lovebirds) refers to a drink made of overcaffeinated tea, coffee, and condensed milk, first concocted to squeeze more labor out of dockworkers. It’s the favorite of Ruth (Reilly), here to teach English. She meets economics teacher John (Gregory Wong), and they bond over food: street vendors, local delicacies, fast food. (The media screening I attended was cruelly held at dinnertime.)

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Photo Credit: Facebook

Their story is told through flashbacks as they share one last drink before Ruth departs for Beijing. As they recall fond memories, we see them enacted on screen; when their conversation grows awkward, we see their disagreements and fights.

Ruth doesn’t seem to notice that John is lovestruck. Maybe it’s his non-native English. Wong sometimes seems to almost forget his lines, and his intonations are distinctly Chinese, but like the halting line readings in Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera (2017), this just adds to the realism of his tragedy.

At the end, John looks over a busy thoroughfare, and the film fades to a shot of the same thoroughfare thronged with black-clad protestors, bringing us to the fourth section, “It’s Not Gonna Be Fun.” This documentary follows Jessica Lam, who in 2019 runs for legislative office representing Sham Shui Po, mostly to divert the resources of the pro-China alliance. The pro-democracy camp wins 80% of contested seats, but Lam loses by just 102 votes.

This section is the most traditional, as it interweaves campaign footage with a personal introduction. The young candidate has a solid platform and campaigns hard, though she says afterward that she didn't really want to win, because “people can be annoying.” Her day job as barista and bartender echoes U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she has two beautiful cats, a mother-daughter pair. They, and the charisma of their owner, are what keep this section interesting.

Memories, Drinks shows how Hong Kong’s turbulent history is still very much with us. With the crackdown by Beijing, not to mention the pandemic's social distortions, the intimacy and innocence of these stories now feels nostalgic. It’s good to have this record of the recent past, as the city and the world hurtle into the future.

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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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