Ann Hui’s July Rhapsody, translated literally as Man 40 from Cantonese, is not so much a film about a mid life crisis as it is about life itself. This film, through the strength and believability of the characters and the value the director places in narrative pace, speaks most strongly about matters of the heart and the choices we make for good or ill, and the things seemingly beyond our control. But it also manages to illuminate value within our perceived mistakes, and as the story progresses we see it is the experience derived and not the mistakes themselves that are most important.
Life for High School teacher Lam Yui-Kwok seems predictable, with its share of frustrations and problems. Married, with a wife, two sons and a life that perhaps could have been better, the situation is more or less tolerable until his wife announces the unexpected reappearance of an old flame, their High School teacher with whom she had an affair and the same man from whom Lam learned his enduring passion for poetry. Suddenly threatened and adrift, reminded of decisions and events that have shaped a life he never really planned, Lam becomes susceptible to the attentions of attractive school student, sweetly cynical Wu. But is this affair the catalyst that will break him out of the life he’s not sure he wants, or the mechanism through which he finally explores unresolved issues? As choices, both past and present come to have more and more bearing on his life, his family and his future, he finds himself searching for the things that truly matter.
Jacky Cheung, as Lam, gives one of his finest performances in years, carrying the story with an odd mixture of maturity, powerlessness and innocence that is at no point overstated or heavy handed. Karena Lam’s young, sassy Wu is a perfect foil for Cheung’s conservative, responsible literature teacher and Hui’s Ching, a wife seemingly in the background of family life until her old lover reappears, is at once strong and vulnerable, providing both catalyst and foundation to the story.
Complex relationships and potentially damaging secrets are tempered lovingly by references to traditional Chinese poetry, reflecting the underlying depths of emotional connection between the characters, no matter what crisis they are experiencing. Hui’s direction is gentle and compassionate with the characters and sweeping visuals of the Yangtze closing the film leave us with the feeling that while we did not witness the hoped-for happy ending, it is not the conclusion that is important, but the experience of the journey that matters.