As with Cantonese director Fruit Chan’s previous film Made in Hong Kong, this is again set on the mean streets of Hong Kong. It’s a fascinating, Altmanesque view of the pivotal months surrounding the HK hand over to China during 1997.
The Longest Summer follows the plight of a recently disbanded Chinese unit of the British Army, whose members find life in civvy street to be a demeaning and frustrating existence. Their unusual talents soon ensnare them in a web of crime, where a plan is hatched to rob a large city bank. What sounds like straightforward genre material turns out to be an intense and ultimately tragic tale of people trapped in a city that is undergoing immense political and economic changes.
Writer/director Chan uses the simple plot device of two brothers taking different paths in life, but adds a sardonic twist as the good sibling Ga Yin (Tony Ho) readily caves in to the influence of the triad brother, Ga Suen (Sam Lee). Ga Yin, an ex-sergeant and traditionalist, is shocked to find honour being replaced by wealth – however ill-gotten. Brother Suen is appropriately named “Chopstick”, a bespectacled thug whose amiable gawkiness belies a brutal persona that is emphasised through the film’s most shocking moment of violence.
The ex-soldiers have trouble readjusting to a commercial world where the focus is firmly set on customer service, as is humorously shown in a number of scenes. The latter is tempered by a chilling admission from one discarded warrior that: “Hong Kong is now the battlefield”.
Chan and cinematographer Lam Wah-Chuen have produced montage sequences that will amaze many festivalgoers. The lead-up to the robbery is intercut with troops training, street decorations being prepared and a Union Jack disappearing in flames – all done to a tacky but affecting nightclub rendition of Auld Lang Syne. A feeling of doom is almost palpable. The starburst pyrotechnics of the hand-over celebrations are steeped in a bitter irony as we watch the dreams of these small soldiers all but disintegrate.
The movie comes full circle after Ga Yin admits total defeat, for only then does he have a chance to strike back at a world he doesn’t understand. Chan’s ultra-cynical ending would have us believe that gangsters and crazed taxi drivers are the only people prospering in Hong Kong today. Whether this is true or not, one thing is for certain – The Longest Summer makes for powerful viewing.