Dayo Wong and Irene Wan in Derek Chiu's little-seen "Mr. Sardine" (1994)

Hidden Gems #1: Mr. Sardine 沙甸魚殺人事件 (1994)

In our newly-added Hidden Gems column, we will focus on introducing obscure or underrated Hong Kong movies that went under the radar, beginning with Derek Chiu (Sung-Kei)’s 1994 little-seen Mr. Sardine <沙甸魚殺人事件>.

Two years before he made The Log <三個受傷的警察>, which would subsequently land him a nod for Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Derek Chiu (Sung-Kei) helmed a low-budget indie comedy-drama titled Mr. Sardine <沙甸魚殺人事件>.

The title, of course, refers to the character himself played by Dayo Wong Chi-Wah — a mild-mannered and dorky supermarket clerk who lives alone in a rented apartment filled with lots of canned goods. He has a caring girlfriend (Joanna Chan Pui-San), who’s already looking forward to marrying him. He is also the kind of person who doesn’t like to take on more responsibility, as evidently seen when his manager (Wayne Lai) decided to promote him as an assistant manager.

Liu Kai-Chi in "Mr. Sardine" (1994)
Liu Kai-Chi in “Mr. Sardine” (1994)

Sardine’s colleagues love to make fun of him and so does a particular uniformed police officer (Liu Kai-Chi), who enjoys harassing him. If that’s not enough, Sardine finds out that his landlady Mrs Pei (Poon Fong-Fong) wants to take back her apartment because she wants to leave it for her daughter, Anna (Irene Wan). He refuses to move out and then one night, Mrs Pei drops by at Sardine’s apartment — all sad and drunk after quarrelling with her daughter earlier. She ends up dead after overdosing on a box of painkillers… with a fixed grin on her face, that is.

Feeling responsible for her death, Sardine decided to hide the body in one of his room for the time being. He did attempt to dispose of the body, which leads to a series of morbidly funny moments (the scene where Sardine carries her piggyback while stumbling upon a group of rioters staging a protest comes to mind).

Upon its release back in May 1994, Mr. Sardine <沙甸魚殺人事件> was largely gone unnoticed and only managed to scrap less than HK$1 million at the local box office. The movie is hardly the type of a mainstream-friendly Hong Kong comedy-drama and I have to admit it does feel odd at times. This is especially true with the way Tats Lau’s wildly eccentric score mixes everything from distorted guitar noise to loud moans and even heavy breathing.

And yet, there is something about Mr. Sardine <沙甸魚殺人事件> that makes it such an underrated gem. Written by Chan Ka-Cheong, John Chan Kin-Chung and Jason Lam Kee-To, the movie may not entirely succeed in meshing the drama with a varying sense of broad and dark humour.

Wayne Lai and Dayo Wong in "Mr. Sardine" (1994)
Wayne Lai and Dayo Wong in “Mr. Sardine” (1994)

But kudos to Derek Chiu, who has a knack for unfolding the comedy-drama to his advantage with reflective themes of isolation, anxiety and paranoia — both of which mirrors Sardine’s character with the then-looming state of the 1997 Hong Kong handover at the time. Look deeper and you will find a few indirect and obvious references about them throughout the movie. Take the symbolic ending, for example, in which at one point, Irene Wan’s Anna mentioned “I mean we needn’t care what will happen in the future. It’s beyond your worries.” Chiu would go on incorporating the same underlying theme of the 1997 Hong Kong handover in the guise of a cop drama seen in The Log <三個受傷的警察>.

Chiu also successfully bringing out the best in his cast, notably Dayo Wong in his spot-on performance as the titular meek character. Personally, I’m not a big fan of his acting except for his two popular TVB series in War Of The Genders <男親女愛> (2000) and You’re Hired <絕代商驕> (2009) but his performance in Mr. Sardine <沙甸魚殺人事件> is a rare exception.

His co-star, Irene Wan delivers solid support as the rebellious daughter, Anna while the rest including Poon Fong-Fong, Joanna Chan Pui-San and Liu Kai-Chi round up the better-than-expected acting ensemble.

Dayo Wong would go on appearing in another Derek Chiu’s movie called Oh! My Three Guys <三個相愛的少年> alongside Eric Kot Man-Fai and Lau Ching-Wan, which was released a few months later. Although he gradually found bigger success in the aforementioned TVB series, his acting career in feature films was the complete opposite. Often dismissed as box-office poison, it only took him over 20 years later before he finally landed not one but two unlikely hits in Agent Mr Chan <棟篤特工> (2018) and The Grand Grandmaster <乜代宗師> (2020).

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