Hong Kong anthology drama film “Septet: The Story of Hong Kong” attempts to cover seven decades of Hong Kong via seven different intimate segments. Like many other anthology movies, the movie is not entirely perfect due to the different level of achievement of each of its segments, but it is still enjoyable on the whole thanks to the considerable personal sincerity and affection toward its main subjects, and it is surely something to check out for you if you are familiar with a bunch of notable Hong Kong filmmakers behind this film.
The first segment, “Exercise”, is directed by Sammo Hung and it is set in Hong Kong during the 1950s. This is a very simple and innocent story about a strict kung fu master, played by Hung’s elder son Timmy Hung, and a bunch of young trainees under his teaching, but you will be amazed by those young performers who show much more physical agility and flexibility than most of us, and you will also be touched a bit as clearly sensing some autobiographical elements from Hung’s life.
Set in Hong Kong during the 1960s, Ann Hui’s “Headmaster” will grow on you more as you come to reflect more on those seemingly simple personal moments observed from its titular character and one of young female teachers working under him. Both of them are good teachers who genuinely care about their students, and then we gradually come to discern that there is something developing between him and that young female teacher, which, to his sadness, he belatedly comes to realize many years later. Around this main story, Hui also adds a little episode involved with three naughty students, and the unaffected natural acting of the child performers in the film will bring some warm smile to your face whenever they appear on the screen.
The third segment, “Tender Is the Night”, is directed by Patrick Tam, and it is about two young lovers who will have to say goodbye to each other on one day of the 1980s. Right from when their eyes met, they quickly and passionately fell in love with each other, but now the girl is going to leave Hong Kong along with her family, and she cannot help but feel angry as her lover has already been quite resigned about the end of their relationship. As these two characters pull and push each other during their last meeting, the mood becomes more bittersweet, and that eventually culminates to a sublime moment of loss and sadness.
In contrast, Yuen Woo-ping’s “Homecoming”, which is set in the 1990s, is more cheerful in comparison as a funny and heartwarming story about an old guy and his granddaughter who has just returned to Hong Kong for some important examination. Right from when his granddaughter arrives at his residence, both the old guy and his granddaughter become more aware of the considerable generation gap between them, but, what do you know, they soon get quite closer to each other than expected after he shows a bit of his old Kung fu skill for her at one point. Yes, there will be always some distance between them in one way or another, his granddaughter comes to love and care about her grandfather more than before, and he surely appreciates that a lot while becoming more conscious of his mortality.
The fifth segment, “Bonanza”, is directed by Johnnie To, who is incidentally one of the co-producers of the film and shows a bit of his humorous side here. It shows several short episodic moments observed from three friends living in Hong Kong in the 2000s, and their clumsy attempts for getting rich via all those frenzies surrounding the local stock market are rather repetitive but hilarious nonetheless. Now I am reminded of what late Chicago film critic Gene Siskel’s helpful advice on stock market to his longtime colleague/competitor/friend Roger Ebert: “You can never outsmart the market, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Find something you love, for reasons you understand, that not everyone agrees with you about, and put your money in it.”
Ringo Lam’s “Astray”, which is set in Hong Kong in the 2010s, is quite poignant not only because of its small but tender and reflective family drama but also Lam’s death in 2018. As wandering here and there around in the city, a middle-aged man played by Simon Yam cannot help but become wistfully nostalgic about how the city looked many years ago, and then he feels quite confused and frustrated while hurriedly looking for the spot where his wife and son are waiting for him. Not long after one sudden accident happens to him, he and his wife move to his family home outside the city, and he becomes more peaceful than before, though he cannot help but annoyed by how his son and several other young men are rather disrespectful to his old traditional values. In the end, as reflecting more on his relationship with his father in the past, he comes to accept what he cannot possibly change, and that is soon followed by a powerful personal moment to linger on your mind.
The last segment, directed by Tsui Hark, is unfortunately the weakest one in the bunch, but it is not wholly without entertainment at least. Although it is no more than a neurotically self-conscious comedy sketch set in the middle of the 2020s, all performers in this segment are clearly having a fun with their deliberate overacting at least, and I will not deny that I was delighted by the cameo appearance by one of Hark’s fellow directors.
Overall, “Septet: The Story of Hong Kong”, which was premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2020 but was belatedly released in Hong Kong in last year before getting released in South Korea in this week, is an engaging mixed bag to be admired and savored. It is a bit of shame that John Woo, who was supposed to handle its 1970s part, dropped out for his health problem at the last minute, but that is just one of minor flaws in the charming tapestries of Hong Kong and its history and people, and I assure you that you will have a fairly good time with this lovely cinematic package.