When I first read the description of Mad World, the debut feature of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Chun on the Honolulu Film Festival website it seemed well…pretty damned depressing. This initially tempered my enthusiasm to view the film, but my better sense prevailed.
I was curious to see what this young director had to express about mental illness and was intrigued by his choice of A-lister Shawn Yue as his leading man. This was going to be a serious role for the former model and Hong Kong pop star.
He killed it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Yue who plays Tung, a former stockbroker, battles bipolar disorder while in the midst of repairing his relationships with his estranged father and ex-fiancée.
The story begins with Tung’s dad (Eric Tsang) picking up his son at a mental hospital where he’s been on a year-long treatment for a bi-polar disorder. He takes him back to his cramped, dingy downtown tenement, a walk-up shared by a number of other families and various misfits.
This is clearly not the abode of the Hong Kong elite (which is another reason why I liked this film). There’s much more to this city than rich stock brokers, real estate tycoons and well-coiffed fashion plates. I short I think we learn something about how the other half lives in this former British colony.
As the story unwinds we discover, through flashbacks, that Tung was the only one in the family to care for his abusive, mentally disturbed mother (Elaine Jin) and that his father abandoned the family. We also discover the dark burden that Tung is carrying—the accidental death of his mother that he was party to. (She slipped in the shower while he was bathing her).
No good deed goes unpunished in this movie and there’s no shortage of torment for Tung, who isn’t helping his own cause by eschewing his meds.
Tung is furious with his father having bailed out from the family and to make matters worse, his former fiancée (Charmaine Fong) is apoplectic that his psychological breakdown destroyed her fairy tale dreams of raising a family. To make matter’s worse, he’s left her to pay the mortgage on an apartment they shared.
She takes refuge by becoming a born again Christian and, after inviting Tung on a “date” which turns out to be a bible study meeting, she excoriates him on the pulpit in front of her co-parishioners.
He reacts by heading into a nearby grocery store, scarfing down candy bars as fast as he can stuff them in his mouth. It’s not pretty and shoppers video him with their smart phones. Naturally the video goes viral–everyone in Hong Kong–not to mention another estranged family member, his brother who lives in the States, sees it.
The fun just never stops for Tung, who has to face the wrath of the inhabitants of his flat, one of whom has actually witnessed the candy bar incident. They want him gone from the premises.
The only friend he has is a young boy who lives in the room next door (another great performance) who Tung has helped plant a vegetable garden on the apartment’s roof.
The story has a happy ending after Tung and his dad are kicked out of the apartment. They reconcile and we’re left with some hope after the incessant barrage of bad things happening to good people.
I ended up admiring this film greatly. The director covers a lot of territory in addition to mental illness and life in contemporary Hong Kong. It’s also a masterful character study of (as the Hollywood Reporter put it) “a troubled young man’s attempt to contain his own inner chaos in a maddening city where space, sympathy and sanity are at a premium”.
I loved the small touches that the director and screen writer (Florence Chan) offer such as the earthy, real world banter found on a street corner between Tung’s dad and his truck driving cronies. There’s also an unerring jab at social media, when the candy bar scene goes viral.
As the director stated in a Q&A after the film was shown, we are left wondering who is more sane, the mentally ill protagonist or the so-called “normal” population who are vituperative, greedy and uncaring.
Yue is supported by very strong performances from Eric Tsang, Elaine Jin and Charmane Fong.
I can’t wait to see what Director Wong Chun has in store for us next.