Hong Kong ,  1980
Directed by Yim Ho.
Viewers of Hong Kong Cinema in 1980 could be forgiven for thinking the world was coming to an end. The old societal customs no longer held, and the new was open to endless possibility in the imagination, but narrowed by poverty and circumstance into a futile struggle to find some purpose, any purpose, worth having. In Patrick Tam's Nomad, teens hung out and tuned out of a society in which they couldn't find a place, but which wouldn't let them go except in death. In Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind, the bored kids turn to a darker place, and get their kicks killing cats and making bombs, with however similarly disasterous consequences. Somewhere in the middle, then, sits THE HAPPENINGS, its teen protagonists neither dropping out of society nor willfully destroying it. Instead, they just carouse through life, drinking, dancing, partying, stealing, for no other reason than listless boredom. And very quickly, things start getting out of control.
The kids steal a car, because it is a fancy buggy that some idiot left the keys in. A crime of opportunity, taken on a whim. They cruise the city streets, and stop at a remote gas station to fill the tank, but without any money, they need to come up with some kind of scam to get away, one which the grownups don't take too kindly to. The gas station attendants would rather fight it out than let the kids get away with a lousy tank of gas.
Accidents happen, people die, lives turn to shit. They never really knew how to fit in to society at large, how it really worked, so of course they have no idea how to handle a situation when it goes wrong.
What's worse, and what makes THE HAPPENINGS such a powerful film, is that the adults aren't particularly mature, either. No real father figures, elder brothers, wise men, sympathetic elders -- nothing. When the kids try to get away with not paying for their gas, the gas attendants go ballistic, and one (Wong Yut Fei in an early role) starts swinging a crowbar with no regard for how lethal it is. The adults lose control as quickly as the teens. When Cheung Kwok Keung takes the stolen car to show his brother, his brother admonishes him not to steal -- "unless you are going to rob a bank," he adds, while removing the car stereo and leaving with it. When one of the boys seeks shelter with a prostitute to avoid the cops, she simply tries to extort him for all he's worth. No one has much control. Everyone is self-obsessed. And as a consequence, no one can possibly help these kids.
But it doesn't matter, anyway, because it becomes clear the kids wouldn't know what help looked like anyway and wouldn't take it if offered, except to get out of today's jam and into tomorrow's. They, too, have no loyalty to others, no perspective, no plans. When a detective stumbles across them, one of the girls quickly starts shouting "I didn't kill! It was him! It was him!" and even though she travels with the gang, taunts that they will be punished for what they did, not even seeing that her very presence makes her an accomplice. There is no solidarity between friends, only scared bundles of raw energy that fly apart at the slightest touch.
Yim Ho's first two films, THE EXTRAS and THE HAPPENINGS, are two of the most frenetically exciting, out-of-control Hong Kong films ever made. Each feature protagonists who are unable to control their destiny, and are swept along by events without a pause to reflect or time to act. Or worse, when they finally are able to act, their actions only make matters worse. Nothing is simple in these films, every action has its consequences, and most of all, there is a feeling that no one is fully in control, nobody understands what is safe and what is dangerous, nobody can clearly explain right and wrong. The viewer experiences the utter helplessness of the protagonist's situation. The filmmaker best known for frenetically paced films has to be Tsui Hark, but in his films, the flurry of action makes the viewer giddy with excitement and eager to see what will happen next, compared to the experience in Yim Ho's films, of nervousness and alarm.
In an interview published by the Hong Kong Film Festival ("Hong Kong New Wave: 20 Years After"), Yim Ho states that his first films were "experiments" and that he didn't understand how to make a film until he made HOMECOMING, his fourth picture, in 1984. I suppose this is an understandable view for him to take, given that this film was not very successful, while HOMECOMING won armloads of awards and prestige. But I respectfully disagree. Although many of his films are unfortunately not easily available, those that I have seen suggest that these first films were among the best he ever made, and deserve a place on every Hong Kong cinema enthusiast's shelves -- provided a decent home video release ever materializes for them. For now, Joy Sales has released THE HAPPENINGS on VCD, so it will have to do.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 15, 2008.