Edinburgh 2014: ‘Aberdeen’ review


When Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997, many thought that the removal of colonial education systems would lead to a gradual shift towards a stronger identification with China. Attempting to reconcile the past to build a brighter future, the city finds itself with something of an identity crisis, an issue imaginatively explored in director Pang Ho-cheung’s poignant and charismatic Aberdeen (2013). A marked shift in tone from his previous comedies, Ho-cheung explores issues of Hong Kong’s identity through the microcosm of the Cheng family. Spanning three generations, each member of the family is experiencing their own distinct crisis.

Grandfather Dong (Ng Man-tat) is a fisherman turned Taoist priest who is struggling to get his family to accept his nightclub hostess girlfriend, Ta (Carrie Ng). His daughter, Wai (Louis Koo), works as a museum tour guide at an old colonial fortress and can’t escape the depression evoked by the belief that her deceased mother never loved her, a feeling exacerbated by her distant husband, an ultrasound technician, who is having an affair with one of his nurses. The most intriguing branch of this intricate family tree is Wai’s brother Tao (Louis Koo) and his wife, Cici (Gigi Leung). Tao is a vain manchild who still collects Star Wars figures and runs classes for women who want to lure in unsuspecting (and rich) husbands. Cici, on the other hand, is a model struggling to fend off of the aging process.

Aberdeen, from which the film gets its title, is the name of a district in Hong Kong where the first batch of British colonialists arrived. Once renowned for its vibrant fishing communities, the area’s historical significance is omnipresent throughout, with Ho-cheung’s distinctive visual flare painting the city as the canvas for a vibrant clash of cultures. A well-observed portrait of a growing metropolis, Aberdeen illuminates its cast under a compassionate and alluring palette of vibrant shades that exude from the screen with an enduring radiance. This intimate family drama is imbued with some delightful moments of surrealism. From a Michel Gondry-esque papier-mâché dinner scene to the sight of a gigantic pet chameleon storming through a realistic cardboard replica of a vibrant urban sprawl, the film captures the surreal sense of confusion in a city caught between the traditionalist past and strange, almost incomprehensible present.

Each of Aberdeen’s characters is given ample time and attention, culminating in a genuinely affable group, with Ho-cheung apportioning a surfeit of pathos which allows him to reveal his character’s vanities and insecurities without ever losing the audiences sympathies. This concentration on character development and attempts to cover the multitude of cultural and social complexities in Hong Kong does mean the film feels light and rather guileless. From image obsession, media constructed insecurity, beauty as a depreciating commodity, reincarnation, to the shrinking, almost obsolete Tanka community, Aberdeen covers a vast variety of topics without ever going into much detail on any of them. Yet, whilst Ho-cheung is guilty of skimming over the details of post-colonial discourse, he’s fashioned a sumptuous and sophisticated billet-doux to an enchanting city with a fascinating history and an exciting future.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble