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Stephan Says So: Echoes of the Rainbow (Sui Yuet San Tau)

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I suppose being awarded the Crystal Bear for Best Film by the Generation Kplus Children’s Jury of the Generations competition at the Berlin Film Festival would have piqued tremendous interest in the film when it got its theatrical release back in Hong Kong, and when I was there during the HKIFF in March, it was still playing to sell out crowds, even the late night shows. Surely that award alone isn’t enough to sustain such a popular run, so much so that I didn’t have an opportunity to watch it, until back in Singapore now. And I can now attest to why it’s box office gold.

Written and directed by Alex Law, Echoes of a Rainbow drips with nostalgia and bucket loads of sentimentality without going overboard into melodrama. It’s a capture of the struggles of a working class family in 1960s Hong Kong with the constant change and hardships of society, and the story is top notch, at the surface being able to entertain, and beneath filled with intense, poignant filled moments and scenes that will tug at your heart strings. With attention paid to detail in its art department and direction, to sets and costumes, it seemed that nothing was spared in recreating scenes, moods and behaviours from the past.

And nostalgia is something which I feel that a sub section of contemporary Hong Kong cinema is currently going through, with bio-pics like Ip Man 2 providing a glimpse into the injustices suffered by the Hong Kongers then, being bullied on both the lawful, and unlawful fronts, by foreigners and triads alike.

Soon to be released Gallants also captures the yesteryears of cinema in a fun filled manner, with martial arts being the order of the day, but with Echoes, this film is steeply rooted in drama, centering upon the lives of the Law family members. Special effects got effectively used to recreate things that no longer exist such as the old tram climbing up Victoria Peak overlooking a different skyline, and in a brilliant opening sequence involving a large fishbowl from which becomes the looking glass on which old Hong Kong got superimposed through a series of archival clips representative of the times.

But special effects cannot take the place of wonderful acting. Simon Yam, who also recently won the Best Actor award at the recent Hong Kong Film Awards for his role here (and the film garnering a lot more accolades as well) and Sandra Ng are two veterans who put on expert performances here, leading and paving the way for its able supporting cast to shine as well. We all know Simon exudes a sense of debonair cool in a number of gangster flicks, and Sandra is comedy queen extraordinaire. If there’s anyone questioning their serious dramatic acting chops, this film will let those eat their words, and be truly flabbergasted by their nuanced performances of those from a generation past.

As head of the household, Simon’s Mr Law is a cobbler and a man of few words, with business never booming and constantly struggling to make ends meet. Sandra Ng plays his more talkative wife steeped in a traditional caregiver role, in total departure from the madcap ones that we’re so used to, as the mom who’s always there for her two kids, played by Buzz Chung as the little Big Ears, and Aarif Lee as Desmond, their family’s pride and joy for being in a famed school and its star track and field athlete. We see events unfold through the eyes of the little one, and Buzz Chung steals everyone’s thunder in a role that encapsulates innocence, with that twinkle of mischief especially with his kleptomaniac ways.

Newcover Aarif Lee also shines as the elder brother on whom hopes of a better life for his family hinges on, and Alex Law’s narrative provides for that teenage romantic love with Evelyn Choi’s Flora, who turns out to be someone from a different social class than Aarif (hey, it’s a Victoria Peak address no less) which proves to be the chief obstacle for both to overcome.

And Alex Law’s story packs plenty to keep you thoroughly and emotionally engaged throughout the 120 minute runtime, with subplots and themes revolving around the hardships that the working class face in that era of change, in a time steeped in corruption from all areas of society from the police to healthcare workers. I especially liked how Law primed the audience for the negative aspects of life then with the very subtle technique of mentioning how both sides of the law put pressure on legitimate businesses through the celebration of the mooncake festival, since we were treated to all things good such as the communal spirit stemming from close neighbours and relatives living on the same street ever willing to chip in, and share resources such as telephones and televisions.

The film encapsulates the look and feel, the music, and its attention to detail of the times is key to its success. There are moments big and small that just bring a smile to my face, be it the pop tunes of yesteryears, the identification of directors such as Ann Hui and others who pop up as supporting cast, or that smattering of the Shanghainese language that got retained in the dubbed version here, and some which left me heart-wrenched, such as when the family members have to band together to overcome a notorious natural disaster, and other difficulties that get thrown their way.

As they say if Life gives you lemons, make lemonade, this family finds that will alone is sometimes never enough, although Mrs Law will have you believe otherwise through her earnestness in positive thinking. The second half of the film was also my favourite as the narrative shifts into full gear, and allows for Simon Yam and Sandra Ng to really shine through their chemistry shared as screen husband and wife. Don’t be surprised too if you can identify with some of the moments and issues that get portrayed and brought up, and goes to show the superb storytelling craft that Alex Law had adopted to present his masterpiece.

Echoes of a Rainbow is now playing at limited screens, but please don’t miss this just for the sake of watching the loudest blockbuster from Hollywood. It is the sincere films like these that need to be watched and appreciated, especially so when blessed with an excellent storyline, and with a myriad of characters all of whom you’ll genuinely feel for, and be moved. This film gets my vote and is a definite shortlist to be amongst the best this year. The DVD will be out soon, which will mean a second, necessary viewing in its native Hong Kong language track. Highly recommended!

–– A Nutshell Review

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