Given the recent public demonstrations in Hong Kong, the film Bends, which I actually saw almost a year ago at the 2013 Stockholm Film Festival, feels especially pertinent. But for those following the socio-political debates and news of Hong Kong, the issues being dealt with in this film go back for longer than that.
Sort of a Chinese version of Driving Miss Daisy, though not quite as chatty nor spanning decades, Bends is a quiet and unassuming film that takes place mostly in Hong Kong, and centers on the relationship between Anna, a wealthy socialite and her chauffeur, Fai, who lives with his pregnant wife and child just across the border in Mainland China. The dialogue and interaction between Anna and her driver are largely minimal and formal, as the film focuses on scenes of the separate worlds lived by both Anna and Fai respectively. In fact, the film’s Chinese title ‘Guo Gai’ literally means ‘crossing borders’.
It is indeed a film about the haves and the have-nots that marks the Hong Kong-China quandary, but it is also a story about human resilience and resourcefulness in situations where time is of the essence. Fai, who imminently faces a steep fine due to the one-child policy in China racks his brain to try and find a way to smuggle his wife into Hong Kong to give birth, while the disappearance of Anna’s rich husband amidst rumors of financial mismanagement sends her world into disarray. With those situations as jumping-off points, Bends is thus a character study of the how the two main protagonists deal with early stages of denial before moving on to anxiety-ridden crutches, all the while treading water to come up with quick-fix solutions to their predicaments before descending into complete chaos. Their existences seem very removed from each other at first, but the narrative’s trajectory gradually sees them begin to co-exist out of practicality, eventually making an impact in each other’s lives.
Although the film has received criticism for its glacial pacing and relatively mundane script, I rather thought it was a slow-burning, atmospheric piece that builds up the tense story-lines for both Anna and Fai well. As the film progresses, one has the feeling that their increasingly desperate efforts do not bode well and some kind of disaster awaits at the climax of the film. This alone kept me interested and invested. The fact that the film presents their circumstances almost in a matter-of-fact manner and devoid of judgment, also poses the question to the viewer of what they would do if they were in Anna’s or Fai’s shoes.
As the first feature-length film (written and directed) by Hong Kong filmmaker Flora Lau, Bends is a modest but well-made and relevant film that signifies the sign of the times for this particular East Asian region. It’s photographed beautifully (though subdued by his standards) by Chris Doyle and anchored by a strong performance by veteran HK actress Carina Lau (I could not imagine any other HK actress breathing the kind of life into the role of Anna). Supporting Lau is the eye-candy, up-and-coming boy wonder in the Chinese film market, Chen Kun, who holds his own with a solidly decent performance. This diffident film is very much worth your one-and-a-half hour of film-watching time.