After spending a decade making films for the Chinese market with the likes of Road To Dawn <夜•明> (2007), 72 Martyrs <英雄喋血> (2011) and My Boyfriends <我的男男男男朋友> (2013), Derek Chiu (1996’s The Log <三個受傷的警察>, 2000’s Comeuppance <天有眼>) finally returned to his Hong Kong roots with his most ambitious and controversial movie to date in the politically-charged No.1 Chung Ying Street <中英街1號>.
Set against the backdrops of two separate events: the first half of the movie takes place during the 1967 anti-British riot and the rise of Chairman Mao-led Cultural Revolution. From here, the 1967 event focuses on three young protagonists from the border village Sha Tau Kok — Lai-Wah (Fish Liew), Chun-Man (Yau Hok-Sau) and Chi-Ho (Lo Chun-Yip) — who are all caught up in the midst of the political struggle alongside a mainland refugee Wingkuen (Chan Kin-Long).
The second half of the movie jumps more than half a century later in 2019 during the post-2014 Umbrella Movement, with the three same actors again but appeared in different roles. Here, Fish Liew plays Sze-Wai, a young activist and ex-convict returning to Sha Tau Kok village. She soon discovers that her fellow villager, the elderly Wingkuen’s (this time played by Yeung Sau-Churk) home and farm has become the target for the Mainland developers to re-develop his land into a shopping mall. Wingkuen immediately staged a protest with the help of Sze-Wai alongside her two friends, Yee-Hong (Yau Hok-Sau) and Yat-Long (Lo Chun-Yip).
No.1 Chung Ying Street <中英街1號> was shot in black and white due to a very limited budget (around HK$3 million) but at the same time, it also turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Former Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts graduate Lai Yat-Nam, who made his debut as a feature-length cinematographer, actually does a good job making full use of the monochrome visual aesthetic, giving the movie a sense of place and timelessness. His black and white cinematography even struck a right contrast between the mundane tone of the everyday setting and a stark visual representation that mirrors the Hong Kong city’s socio-political and civil unrest.
Derek Chiu, who also produced and co-wrote alongside poet and current cultural editor of Hong Kong Economic Times Tse Ngo-Sheung (making her feature-length debut as a scriptwriter), eschews the big picture surrounding the 1967 anti-British riot and the post-2014 Umbrella Movement events. Instead, they chose to zero in on how the six different principal characters’ (Fish Liew’s Lai-Wah/Sze-Wai, Yau Hok-Sau’s Chun-Man/Yee-Hong and Lo Chun-Yip’s Chi-Ho/Yat-Long) private lives, respective beliefs & motivations as well as their subsequent cause of actions that affected them personally during the tumultuous periods of the two aforementioned historical events.
The 1967 segment during the first half of the movie is particularly tense and heartfelt. But the same cannot be said with the latter 2019 segment, which is strangely muted by Chiu’s more melodramatic approach and an equally dull romance angle that could have trimmed down altogether.
No.1 Chung Ying Street <中英街1號> may have been spotty in places but this low-budget movie remains one of Derek Chiu’s best directorial efforts in recent years. Given his bold filmmaking choice for choosing sensitive political subjects, don’t be surprised if his movie becomes the centre of the attention for next year’s Hong Kong Film Awards similar to 2015’s like-minded Ten Years <十年>. Chiu is also benefited from a strong young cast led by Malaysian-born Fish Liew, Yau Hok-Sau and Lo Chun-Yip. And besides Lai Yat-Nam’s solid black-and-white cinematography, The Interzone Collective also deserved a special mention here for their percussion-heavy score that evokes the affecting tone and subject matter of the movie.