Ah Ying is a young fish market seller who wants to become an actress. She comes from a big family and this family lives cramped in a small apartment in Hong Kong. There is the fish market. We see hands which scale fishes or cut off their heads. A crowd is standing around. The whole family is busy with selling and preparing fish. A few moments later we see the apartment of the family: two rooms where any square centimeter is used with remarkable inventiveness. At evening dinner the whole family is gathering. Ah Ying is listening rock music with headphones which we hear with her ears and which becomes almost inaudible quiet as she takes of the ear phones. The parents are exhausted and the father is drunk. He is stumbling through the narrow rooms. In the room where his six daughters are sleeping in bunk beds he is almost falling. Ah Ying helps him up. The ones who haven´t here dreams anymore are doomed. Allen Fong sees the world sometimes with painful accuracy. But at the same time he loves the people he is filming. To tell about the things you love most in the world is probably the most beautiful reason to make films.
Ah Ying at the reception room of the Film Culture Center of Hong Kong. A friendly assistant introduces her to this institution. She can participate for free in all classes for directing and acting. As a contribution for membership she has to do from time to time some work here like cleaning and she is also asked for writing some articles for the film magazine owned by this institution. From a small movie theatre we see her and another person cleaning the film projector and the projection cabin. We see three rectangular windows through which the movements of the cleaning people look like three projected little films.
After her work at the market, Ah Ying washes herself to get rid of the smell from the fishes. She attends a course for acting. Cheung, a script writer who just returned from the USA is the teacher of this class. He is limping and introduces himself with a short performance in Cantonese. Why do you want to become actors, he asks. For earning money or for becoming famous, answer some of the students. Ah Ying answers that she just wants to learn something more.
In one shot we see her nervousness in the movements of her feet which permanently slip in and out of her sandals. In another performance, Cheung is blowing rings out of the smoke from his cigarette. Than he asks his shy students to perform. Nobody answers and just at the moment Cheung will finish this class, Ah Ying stands up walks shyly to the desk and lifts the bag of the teacher aside. First she list a cigarette and blows rings than she performs standing at her fish market. Than she sings a song in English and she sings it with such heartiness as this were be the most beautiful thing she has to give. If I had only a few minutes time to introduce this film, I would choose this small wonderful moment. And I would not say anything more. This is the moment I fall in love with this film.
In a book store Ah Ying meets the teacher Cheung. I sell fish she answers shyly when he asks what she does for her living. He is telling her about his bad paid jobs he did in America for financing his education. They understand each other about the work which is necessary for realizing their dreams. In a fast food restaurant they are talking about music. Ah Ying´s favorite musicians David Bowie or Brian Eno are unfamiliar to Cheung but he likes Simon & Garfunkel. Ah Ying sings a verse from "Scarborough Fair". He likes this songs and intones it in the Peking Opera style. The other guests are applauding and he thanks his "audience".
Cheung is working on a screenplay about contemporary Hong Kong. For this project he is collecting stories of people he knows including Ah Ying. "Imagine", he tells her, " in 100 years nobody will know how we have lived." We don´t know exactly during watching this film that Cheung and Ah Ying are real persons but we feel it nevertheless by heart. The actress playing Ah Ying, Hui So-Ying performs herself, the character of Cheung is based on a friend by Allen Fong who passed away close before the film was made. He was also in reality Hui So-Yings acting teacher.
In one scene Cheung´s old rusty "Volkswagen" stops working in the middle of a city road. This road bypasses windows of apartments. We see one of these flats from the perspective of a dweller who hands Cheung and Ah Ying the telephone for calling help. We see this room once more this time deserted. In all playfulness in all the concomitance of reality and story telling as well in its mixture - the real places keep something like their own independence.
From a certain moment on there are a lot of conversations in this film which are filmed like in a documentary. Once Cheung meets Ah Ying´s former boyfriend, visits her family in this cramped apartment and talks with her parents. In this moments Cheung seems to be like Allen Fong who makes researches for his film. Sometimes we see Cheung arguing with his producer about the screenplay. They were friends in their student days and together they dreamed once of making good films. Times have changed, answered the producer while permanently suggesting Cheung for compromises.
One Night Cheung and Ah Ying make a walk around the haven. A gigantic luxury liner is departing. She tries him to tell about her feelings for him. Than we see them from a long shot. And their dreams seems now fragile and forlorn.
The acting students at their rehearsals for a play. After some problems between Ah Ying and Cheung who play the main characters, the premiere takes place. Even Ah Ying´s parents are applauding proudly. But after the play is over, she goes to the washing room and cries. The performed feeling on the stage about love which is only fulfilled in the Hereafter, she takes with her into her own reality. This feeling performed on the stage is echoing in her like in ourselves. While watching a film which moved us a lot we try to connect own personal experiences with the situations we saw in the film.
Later Cheung takes farewell from Ah Ying. He will go to the USA for getting surgery for his leg. Together with them we see how the old Volkswagen will be scrapped. This vehicle, this thing which witnessed so much stories becomes a compact bunch of metal.
After this farewell, Ah Ying is again in her apartment. An argument with her brother and she is alone again in the depressing narrowness and she is again alone with her dreams.
At the end she is called by a casting agent for a television channel. In front of a long table three persons are sitting. She sits face to face to them in a certain distance. She recites a small love scene. And than she says a sentence which moved me like the song at the beginning of the film. She answers the question why she wants to become an actress that she is selling fishes at the market. "There was a time", she continues, that she refused to admit this but today she does not feel anymore ashamed. That is an incredible sentence which has also to do with the utopia of art that shall help us to deal with our life instead to replace it. Later at the fish market, the telephone is ringing again. Ah Ying has once more an interview with the television channel. The mother becomes grumpy and mentions that her daughter shall better focus on selling fish. Than the camera travels back. Ah Ying and her family are hard to recognize in this crowd. They get back their anonymity. The image freezes.
The story of Hui So-Ying hits me in the middle of my heart and not only because of some parallels to my own story. It is not only a film about ordinary people, it is rather a love song to them. Both aspects of cinema are evenhanded: the ability to give images about the reality but also about the dreams which helps us to deal with the often tough reality. Banbian Ren remains for me one of the most beautiful and most lovable films from the so called New Wave of Hong Kong Cinema I have seen..
A German text on A LITTLE LIFE OPERA is available in my German Blog here.