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An authorised adaptation of renowned Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang’s 1963 novel, this directorial debut by veteran film critic Freddie Wong brims with an intellectual urgency that rivals all those disaffecting European art house puzzles from the 1960s. Widely regarded as the first stream of consciousness novel in the Chinese literary canon, The Drunkard has long been considered unfilmable – even if it has already provided the basis for Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 .
Haunted by his memories of wartime brutality – which occasionally intercut the present in the form of voiceover recollection and documentary photographs of the past – middle-aged intellectual Mr Lau (played by Taiwanese actor John Chang, father of Chang Chen) sedates his broken spirit with cigarettes and alcohol. Subsequently turning to fund his drinking addiction by writing erotic fiction, Lau also finds himself bouncing from one woman to another, such as his landlord’s young daughter (Katie Kwok), the beautiful landlady (Irene Wan) with an always-absent husband, and a 17-year-old nightclub hostess (local indie mainstay Joman Chiang) who completes Lau’s soulful sadness.
With its 1960s Hong Kong setting and vibrantly coloured, methodically framed images, the film invites comparison with Wong Kar-wai’s 60s-set trilogy, which is itself strongly influenced by Liu’s writings. In fact, in a playful yet overly self-congratulatory move, Freddie Wong has even slipped in an in-joke to taunt his more established namesake for illicitly adapting Liu’s other classic, Tête-bêche , into In the Mood for Love .
Ultimately, this adaptation of The Drunkard feels too literary for its own good. Opening with close-up images of the old-edition book covers of western literary classics, the film is punctuated with recurrent glimpses of the protagonist writing, as well as eye-rollingly literal images of presumably symbolic objects (a huge spider, for instance, is trapped under a glass). A laudable effort that has seemingly taken too much pride in its own intellectual leaning (not least with the frequent use of inter-titles, which quote directly from the book), it begs the question: if Liu’s words remain the most effective anchor in the sea of fragmented vignettes, why make a film in the first place?
Dir Freddie Wong, Category IIB, 106 mins