Reviewed by: Paul Fonoroff
In any given year, we are lucky if a few Cantonese movies attempt to explore the contemporary landscape with depth and maturity. Of those few, it is rare for even one or two to approach the potential of their themes. Little Cheung comes closest of any 1999 production. The third and arguably the best of director/writer Fruit Chans 1997 trilogy, Little Cheung is more of-a-piece than the ambitious-but-flawed Longest Summer (released last January) and more fully developed than his critically acclaimed Made in Hong Kong (1997).
Unlike the previous two movies, there is little that is sensational in Little Cheung. The title character is a nine-year-old boy who leads what probably passes for a normal working-class childhood in the wilds of urban Kowloon. As any Hong Kong movie buff knows, Little Cheung has other meanings. Foremost is the 1950 classic featuring then nine-year-old Bruce Lee as the eponymous hero. But though the new Little Cheung makes reference to the black-and-white drama, Director Cheung director focuses more on another Cheung. This is none other than Cantonese opera and movie superstar Sun-Ma Tsai, who was affectionately known as Brother Cheung. Sun-Mas declining months, leading to his death in 1997, was a real-life soap opera played across Hong Kongs television screens and the tabloid press. Director Chan finds in Sun-Ma a potent symbol of certain aspects of Hong Kong on the eve of the handover, such as the old giving way to the new, the place of popular culture in Hong Kong life, and even the political consciousness of the inhabitants of the then-British colony. As one person remarks, Brother Cheungs death garners more attention than that of Deng Xiaoping.
The symbolism is thankfully not overly belabored. Little Cheungs connection to Brother Cheung is naturally introduced via the youths aged grandmother who might or might not have once had an alliance with the opera star. The picture takes as its main theme the friendship between Little Cheung and a neighborhood girl, Ah Fan. They both help their parents at work to an extent that falls just short of illegal child labour. But neither kid feels exploited, and they genuinely enjoy making the extra pocket money delivering orders for the coffee shop run by Cheungs family.
The street on which they live is populated with believable types: stern parents, petty gangsters, prostitutes, etc. The tricks Cheung and Fan play on one nasty hood will make one think twice about ordering lemonade again, and does American Pie one better when it comes to drink additives. There is a pleasant blend of drama and comedy, though with a nearly two hour running time the picture seems about one reel too long.
The movie presents Cheungs street as an urban village where there is a real sense of community, and does it far more successfully than the similar setting treated with such insipid sentimentality in The Kid a few months ago.
Chan also finds room in this village to include minority groups usually ignored in Hong Kong cinema, namely Filipinos and recent immigrants from Mainland China. The love-hate relationship between the Cheungs and their Filipina maid provides the movie with some of its most poignant moments, as does the II (illegal immigrant) question. The round-up of young illegals at school and on the street is chilling, yet the right of abode issue is handled with a restraint that makes it touching rather than maudlin. There are no answers provided, nor are any required.
The largely non-professional cast is natural, and the larger budget (a mere $2 million, but four times that of Made in Hong Kong) shows in the films technical polish. Brother Cheung is reportedly the last of Chans 1997 movies, and Hong Kong cinema is fortunate to have a trilogy that so evocatively documents the hopes, fears, and realities of the colony on the eve of its transformation into a special administrative region.
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Reviewed by: ryan
Summary: A movie "Down to Earth"
In Chinese, the title of "Little Cheung" (2000) is the same as a movie in the 1950s featuring Bruce LEE when he was still a child -- "The Kid" (1950). Some people may correlate "Little Cheung" with a famous Chinese Opera Singer SUN MA Sze-tsang, who is also known as "Cheung Gor". In fact, "Little Cheung" is the latest Fruit Chan direction after his "Made in Hong Kong" (1997) and "The Longest Summer" (1999). This time around all the performers are new and Fruit CHAN is still creating his own brand of independent production.
As you can guess, "Little Cheung" is about a character named Little Cheung (LAI Chi-ho) who is a kid in a typical family. His Dad owns a restaurant on Temple Street and he sometimes helps his father with the deliveries. Cheung has a Grandma who always watches SUN MA Sze-tsang's Opera. One day, Little Cheung meets a girl his age named Fun (MAK Wai-fun). Fun is a girl who has to help her mom wash dishes for a restaurant. Fun tries to look for a job in Cheung's Dad's restaurant but she is not considered. Cheung decides to 'hire' Fun and this starts their life of being together ....
Last time, Fruit CHAN presented "The Longest Summer" by making use of the handover of Hong Kong. This time, he presents "Little Cheung" by making use of the incidents of SUNG MA Sze-tsang, who suffered from difficult family problems before he died in 1997.
One of the interesting things about "Little Cheung" is its real life feeling. This is one of the cool characteristics about Fruit CHAN movies. In "Made in Hong Kong", we have Mid-Autumn looking for a girl in a grave. In "Little Cheung" we have Little Cheung playing tricks on his clients who sometimes do not pay him money for the delivery. The idea is creative and original. Throughout the movie, there are pieces of this type of treatment which makes you feel that you're back at home.
Another interesting part of "Little Cheung" is the relationship between Cheung's Grandma, Hoi and SUN MA Sze-tsang. It is interesting as the movie describes their relationships in a bit of an embrassing way! The good choice of time frame (the days before and after Cheung Gor's death,) has made this sub-plot more dramatic.
When compared with Fruit CHAN's previous movies, "Little Cheung" is not as overly ambitious as before. This makes the movie feel more natural and evenly paced. There are nice touches following the relationship between Little Cheung and Fun, for example when they play around in the trunk, and try to ride a large bicycle. Little Cheung even brings Fun to meet his Grandma and treats her as his girlfriend. These are very funny!
"Little Cheung" makes good use of "Cheung Gor". Little Cheung's Dad is not interested in "Cheung Gor" but only for his staff and all the customers. To a certain extent, this shows that his Dad is a bit out of the norm. This is the basis of his problem in communicating with his mom (Cheung's Grandma,) and Cheung.
"Little Cheung" is not a big film, but a small independent production. It is so small that it gives the movie a very comfortable feeling. The relationship between Cheung and Fun is also very entertaining. It deserves one of the first good recommendations of the new year!
Written by Ryan Law from Hong Kong Movie DataBase on 3 January 2000.