The long-awaited Johnnie To-produced anthology film Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> is finally here since it was first announced back in 2015.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t originally called Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> but rather Eight and a Half <八部半>, which would feature eight directors helming their own segments related to the city. This includes Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, John Woo, Yuen Woo-Ping, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. However, John Woo was forced to depart the project due to health reasons, which resulted in the eventual change of the title.
First things first, being a huge fan of Milkyway production, it sure feels nice to see the familiar company logo making its appearance during the pre-credit sequence (their last production was the 2019 little-seen Mainland comedy-drama Chasing Dream <我的拳王男友>).
From there, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> begins its first segment with Sammo Hung’s 1950s-set Exercise, which predominantly takes place on the rooftop of a building. Timmy Hung plays a strict martial arts teacher, who oversees his young students practising different moves from handstands to somersaults as early as 7am in the morning.
It was a simple but effective story about hard work and discipline and this particular segment immediately evokes the work of the late Alex Law’s Painted Faces <七小福> (1988), where Sammo Hung plays a stern master of a Chinese opera school. Credits go to Sammo Hung’s engaging direction that effectively combines cautionary drama, comedy and of course, some well-choreographed training sequences. Personally, I’m not a fan of Timmy Hung’s acting in the past but this time, he made quite a lasting impression playing a no-nonsense teacher.
Next up is Ann Hui’s Headmaster, a 1960s-set melodrama that focuses on the titular headmaster played by Francis Ng and a younger teacher (Sire Ma) teaching the primary-school kids. Hui brings a familiar neorealistic style to her direction backed by Francis Ng and Sire Ma, both of which deliver decent but could-be-better performances in their respective roles.
The bittersweet segment of Headmaster somehow lacks Hui’s distinct humanistic touch that defines some of her best works in the past. I hate to say this but Ann Hui’s segment is easily the weakest one of the lot.
The third segment continues with the long-missed Patrick Tam, who last directed a feature film in After This Our Exile <父子> back in 2006. In Tender is the Night, Tam revisited his Nomad <烈火青春> (1982)-like narrative style, where he focuses on the romantic passion and teenage love of a young couple (Jennifer Yu and Gouw Ian Iskandar, both deliver great performances) set in the 1980s.
The segment is framed like a staged production, complete with the theatrical style of acting as we learn Yu’s character is unable to let go of her first love, even though she is about to emigrate with her parents. Tam incorporates themes of broken dreams and uncertainty that reflect the young couple’s whirlwind romance and the city of Hong Kong at the time. The overall stagy approach might be a turn-off for some but at least Patrick Tam’s Tender is the Night remains a step-up effort from Ann Hui’s lacklustre second segment.
Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> gets better with the fourth segment of Yuen Woo Ping-directed Homecoming featuring Yuen Wah as the retired elderly martial arts practitioner who loves to watch Kwan Tak-Hing-era of black-and-white Wong Fei-Hung movies.
I didn’t expect the poignant touch that Yuen Woo-Ping would bring in this segment but to my surprise, he successfully did it with his above-average direction. Besides, action is more of Yuen Woo-Ping’s major forte. But Homecoming proves his versatility in offering a well-acted drama, which focuses on the relationship between a conservative grandfather and a Westernised granddaughter (Ashley Lam in a solid supporting turn). It also helps that Yuen Wah and Ashley Lam share wonderful chemistry together, where the former particularly excels in his best late-career performance.
Homecoming also happens to take place in 1997, a historic year when the Handover of Hong Kong occurred at the time. The generation-gap angle between Yuen Wah and Ashley Lam’s characters ideally brings a subtle reflection of that very year, suggesting harmony and mutual understanding is possible, despite their different beliefs and mindsets.
Moving on is the fifth segment of Johnnie To’s Bonanza, which I have been anticipating for so long since it was increasingly rare to see him directing a Hong Kong feature these days (his last one would be 2016’s Three <三人行>).
Here, he revisited Life Without Principle <奪命金> (2011)-style of filmmaking, where the story takes place in the early 2000s during the SARS crisis and dot-com bubble. It was easily the most political segment of them all, albeit in the usual quirky manner that defined Johnnie To’s unique body of work.
Greed plays a huge part in this segment, where we learn about a trio of friends (among them includes Tony Wu) looking to make a quick buck during the multiple dot-com boom. To’s signature wits and humour are on full display here, which benefitted from Johnnie To and his Milkyway regulars Au Kin-Yee and Yau Nai-Hoi’s evocative and lively screenplay.
The sixth segment — titled Astray — marks the late Ringo Lam’s final work before his untimely death in 2018. While the segment sees him tackling a drama rather than a crime genre that he has mostly known for, it still delivers the melancholy tone of how Hong Kong has rapidly evolved over the years.
Lam, who also wrote the screenplay, tells a resonant story about a man (Simon Yam) returning to Hong Kong to meet his wife (Mimi Kung) and son. But what he sees in today’s Hong Kong becomes unrecognisable from his point of view, with old landmarks being torn down and replaced by modern skyscrapers. Astray is no doubt a loving tribute to Hong Kong and the fact that Ringo Lam’s death makes this particular segment all the more affecting to watch.
Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> ended its seventh and final segment with Tsui Hark’s zany comedy called Conversation in Depth. Set entirely in a mental hospital, we see an interview session between a doctor (Emotion Cheung) and a mental patient played by Cheung Tat-Ming (both of them deliver hilarious performances).
The rapid-fire dialogue and witty remarks instantly remind me of Tsui Hark’s 1980s comedies, complete with pop-culture references that I’m sure Hong Kong movie fans will have a field day enjoying them. And above all, it has been a long while since Tsui Hark last delivers a story that has a uniquely local vibe for a change.
Septet: The Story of Hong Kong <七人樂隊> is a must-see for Hong Kong movie fans because it’s not every day we get to see a local anthology film that has well-known directors collaborated together.