It’s hard to imagine how long I’ve been talking about the film that would eventually become Septet: The Story of Hong Kong. The first time I tweeted about it appears to have been August of 2017, although that tweet is phrased as a reminder, which means I must have retweeted something about it some time before that point. It’s possible the rumors go as far back as the summer of 2016, shortly after the release of Johnnie To’s feature Three. The story was that To was producing an omnibus film called 8 1/2, with contributions from a who’s who of Hong Kong film legends: Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and To himself. Somewhere along the way, Woo dropped out (it’s unclear why, I think I heard there may have been health reasons, but Ringo Lam died in December of 2018 and still managed to finish his section, so I don’t know) and the title was changed to Septet. The film was finally set to premiere at Cannes in 2020, when COVID delayed those plans. It eventually did begin making the festival rounds in the fall of that year (Busan in 2020, then the Hong Kong and Fantasia Film Festivals in 2021). It received a theatrical release in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong earlier this summer, and is now set to play at the Vancouver Film Festival.
The setup is simple enough: each director is given a decade and the films are separated by title cards and arranged chronologically. Together they tell not just the “Story of Hong Kong” but a story of Hong Kong film and the story of themselves, an irreplaceable generation of filmmakers looking back on the place they’ve lived and worked and come to define as much and for as long as any group of filmmakers ever has anywhere in the world. Each of these directors was born between 1945 and 1955. Tsui, Hui, and Lam were key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave; Hung and Yuen revolutionized the period martial arts film, modernizing the tropes established by the Shaw Brothers studio and melding slapstick comedy and outrageous stunt-work into some of the greatest spectacles in movie history; and Lam and To (and of course the absent Woo) were leading exponents of the Heroic Bloodshed genre that did as much as anything to establish Hong Kong cinema as a force in world film culture. Together, these filmmakers have produced some of the most vital art works of the last fifty years.
Watching Septet, I decided to see if I could guess which director was responsible for which segment (the director credits don’t pop up until the end of their short). I’m happy to say that I was right on all seven, which means that perhaps this whole The Chinese Cinema project and the last decade of my film critic life have not been entirely in vain. Some of them were much easier to guess than others, starting with the first one, which begins with the line, “I’m Sammo Hung.” It also stars Hung’s son Timmy, who looks exactly like a skinny version of his father. The short starts us off in the 1950s, at the Peking Opera school where Sammo was a student (along with many other future stars). Timmy plays the teacher, Yu Jim-yuen, a role Sammo himself played in Alex Law and Mabel Cheung’s excellent 1988 film Painted Faces. The genial story of childhood disobedience (whenever their teacher’s back is turned, the kids slack off on their exercises), concludes with Sammo’s punishment (as the eldest student, he’s expected to set an example). Forced to do a handstand for a couple of hours, he finally collapses and cuts his head. Then we cut to the present and a close-up of the scar on Sammo’s head, as he directly addresses the camera to say, “Time flies like an arrow, it only moves forward. The past is but a memory.” Statements which will set the tone for the remainder of the film.
All but one of the shorts to come will feature some kind of a leap in time. The film is of course an exercise in nostalgia, but one which nonetheless unfolds in an eternal present (that’s what film necessarily is: we always experience it now) where past and past-past mingle freely in the memory. Film is a place where a director can make a film where he recreates a moment from his past in which he is scolded by his teacher, and have that teacher be played by his son, such that the son is scolding his own father, who is a child.
Ann Hui’s story begins in the 1960s, following a couple of teachers at a more traditional kind of school, a kind yet ascetic headmaster and a thoughtful and lovely young woman. Then it leaps thirty years into the future (though still thirty years in our past) where we see a class reunion (very Ozuvian this) with the students from the first half now all grown up (in the blink of an edit). The headmaster is still alive, and wistfully recalls the teacher, who has since died. Unrequited emotions surface and may be resolved with a visit to a memorial, where a photo of the teacher lives — she still looks the same as she did 30 years earlier, while everyone else has grown old.
After two tales of school and the relations between students and teachers, Patrick Tam takes us into the 80s (the 70s are skipped, possibly this was Woo’s assignment?), for the first of two stories about late adolescence and the Handover of Hong Kong from the UK to the PRC. Two young people are in love with each other and poetry, but she and her family are emigrating to England sometime after the Joint Declaration, while his is staying behind. Our temporal perspective comes from sometime in the future, in a narration by an older version of the young man (this narration, plus a shot of an airplane flying over the Hong Kong sky, clues us in that this is Tam’s film, being extremely reminiscent of the work of his most accomplished protegé, Wong Kar-wai). The young couple spend one last day together, fighting through their desperate feelings of loss and abandonment and young love, and in the end, our perspective shifts such that it’s the young woman who narrates the conclusion. A joint memory for the time of the Joint Declaration.
The 90s brings us Yuen Woo-ping and the story of an elderly man (played by Yuen Wah, Sammo’s old classmate, now grown old, but not as old as the kids in the first film would have been in the 90s, rather as old as they are now, in the 2020s) and his granddaughter. Her family is moving away too (to Canada), just before the Handover, but she has to stick around with gramps for a few weeks to finish her exams. It’s a sweet story of a generation finding common ground (she helps him learn English and appreciate hamburgers; he teaches her how to defend herself with kung fu). Then she leaves, but returns three years later. He’s become more older, but more Westernized; she’s grown older and more patient, and tells him their family is back to stay. The short’s title is Homecoming, presenting a rather idealized vision of the Handover: people were afraid everything about Hong Kong was going to end. But it didn’t, and many of those who left (including directors like Woo, Lam, Tsui, and Yuen who went to work in Hollywood) came back.
The short for the 2000s, I will admit, was initially the toughest for me to place. But I finally got it and it in retrospect seemed blindingly obvious that it was the work of Johnnie To (a reference to Chasing Dream late in the film didn’t hurt). It’s set almost entirely in a restaurant over the course of a few key moments in the decade. Three young people are debating whether or not to invest in a tech stock. The price keeps going up while they argue, and it seems they’ve missed their opportunity, when all of a sudden it begins to plummet: the beginnings of the dot-com crash. A couple of years later, they have the opportunity to buy an apartment at a discount price, thanks to it being located at one of the centers of the SARS epidemic. They’re ultimately scared off, which an image of a 2000s era Windows screen informs us cost them dearly given the rapid inflation of the value of Hong Kong real estate. Finally, they have a chance to invest in some stocks around the time of the US mortgage crisis. But they accidentally switch the numbers of the stocks they want with the ones for the dishes they want to order (a classic bit of Johnnie To restaurant table-related comic mayhem), only to make money anyway. It turns out that buying stocks at random is just as effective, or more, than researching and debating them. Once again, in a Johnnie To film, chance and fate work in mysterious ways.
Ringo Lam’s film brings us into the present, or at least the present as of when the film was conceived and finished. It’s also the most heart-breaking, made almost unbearably poignant by our knowledge (from the future, which is our present) of the director’s death, which happened almost three years ago now. Simon Yam plays an elderly man who has come back to Hong Kong to visit his son (played by Lam’s own son). He’s lost in contemporary Hong Kong: all the landmarks he remembers (pointedly a movie theatre is as vital as a major industrial pier) have been transformed by time into something more glassy, less real. He holds old pictures up to the present reality; they can’t compare. His past bleeds into his present, reimagining time spent in these spaces with his own father, when he was the younger man, or with his wife. Inevitably, rushing to his family, he encounters an unexpected bus and disappears. Only his phone remains. But we move a while into the future, to see his family giving him a goodbye, scattering his ashes in the sea. His advice — don’t work so much, focus instead on your family and the people you love — reminds us that Lam himself spent more than a decade away from his work in order to spend time with his family, only returning to directing in 2015, once his son was grown. We didn’t get as many great films from him as we might have, but it definitely wasn’t time wasted.
Finally we have Tsui Hark’s contribution, which might be set in our now (2022) which would be the future from the film’s 2020 premiere, or possibly some as yet undefined future of our own as well as the film’s. It’s the funniest and weirdest and boldest of the shorts, as it should be considering Tsui is all of those things and more. Two men are arguing in what appears to be some kind of mental institution. The doctor asks the patient who he is, and he replies “Ann Hui”. When pressed on this (the gender congruity alone seems to belie the factuality of his assertion) he resorts first to “Ringo Lam” and then “Johnnie To” and then back to Ann Hui. After a few minutes of this farce, we pullback behind a mirror to find two doctors observing (played by director Lawrence Ah Mon and icon Lam Suet). They suggest that who we think is who is exactly backwards, part of a kind of therapy for a man who believes he’s a doctor. Then another shift reveals a big crowd behind another window, this one including Tsui himself along with Ann Hui and several other film figures. The tangle of identity: who is watching who, who is the director, who the audience, who exactly is calling the shots here, becomes impossible to sort. It’s the plight of the Hongkonger under the watchful eye of the PRC, as well as of the Hong Kong filmmaker who, like Tsui, strives to work within the censorship codes and regulations of the Mainland government, ostensibly giving them the propaganda they require, while struggling to remain their own, independent (Hongkonger) self. The struggle is real, the silliness, the joy in the jumble of it all, is the wisdom of perspective, of age, of a life lived in a Hong Kong that has changed so much, so wildly, in the span of these seven single lifetimes.