Early in Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, there’s an omen big and bad enough to foretell cataclysm: on a sunny day, a schoolgirl steps off a city rooftop and drops onto the busy street below. In some ways, her death is only retrofit with causal power by our narrator, Autumn Moon, the spiky-haired dilettante at the heart of it all. But the suicide winds up more symptom than harbinger. The city is already thick with routine crises, home to a deeper, slower violence that steals years from the young and poor in Hong Kong’s housing estates. They are failed by their families, the government, and the promises of 1997.
In the summer of that year, after almost two centuries of colonial rule, Hong Kong was handed back to China, a looming fact that steers Chan’s direction, but never surfaces explicitly in the film. Shot mostly on expired stock castoff from other productions, Made in Hong Kong loosely traces the genre tics of triad films, but detours via dreamtime hauntings and flashes of narrated introspection. We meet Moon in voiceover: “I dropped out of school in junior high. I was no good in my studies, but the education system was no better.” He’s got style—if style is some consistent performance of self—with his gel-spiked hair and lone silver earring, a shortcut to cool for a nineties kid from the projects. Moon spends his days playing basketball, getting into fights, or working for triad boss Brother Wing as a debt-collecting errand boy, though, he wants us to know, he’s a “lone-wolf type of person, doing whatever I want…not like the rest of them, because I have brains. I don’t take orders.”
Except he is like the rest of them, lonely behind the bravado and sunglasses, ambushed by the unexpected depth of his feelings when feelings come. And though his desire for community is warped by a deep suspicion, its absence shadows his actions more than he’d ever let on. Moon finds an early companion in Sylvester, a mentally disabled street kid abandoned by his parents and in dire need of protection. It’s a social arrangement fuelled by ego—“one brags about being a Big Brother,” Moon announces—but, quietly, support runs both ways. Soon, the pair become a trio when Moon meets pixie-haired Ping on a round of debt-collection, coyly lounging with a magazine while her mother refuses to pay up. Later, in the real meet-cute, she’s a vision in a doorway with her white mini-dress and red platform slides, bartering her body with Moon to fuck away maybe, possibly, $4500 of her family’s debt? She has a poster of My Own Private Idaho above her bed, replaced later by a sprawling grayscale print of Kate Moss-era Johnny Depp.
There’s a phantom fourth member of the troupe, conjured by posthumous happenstance: the dead schoolgirl we meet early on, pacing a rooftop so high up the frame is mostly cloud and a passing plane skirts her thigh. When she jumps and hits the pavement, two folded letters tumble into the pooling blood. We learn her name—Susan—when Sylvester chances on her body right after the fall and unthinkingly pockets her letters—one, a love letter—before leaving them with Moon. That first night, they lie by his bedside, haloed with a curse that summons her into his dreams as a curbside corpse. To say she’s haunting him feels too flimsy; the parallel edits thread a bond more carnal than spectral, linking Moon’s fevered body in lamplight with his false memory of hers, lolling under the sun. Yes, it ends up a wet dream.
The bande à part journeys to Susan’s old school in search of her mystery paramour, and they find clues in the playground, where rows of uniformed girls jump rope in gym class, filmed in torpid slo-mo because school is unreal, so far from the lives of our core trio that their only way back was through a trail left by a ghost. Pressed up in curiosity, these three interlopers grip the chain link fence that bars the workaday rhythms of the city from their shapeless, offbeat lives. In Chan’s Hong Kong, institutionalised schooling is more than just a demographic marker of the haves and have-nots; Sylvester’s bullies are young boys in crisp white uniforms and matching black satchels, somehow perpetrators of the cruellest onscreen violence in a film stuffed with routine knifings. Uniforms seem to confer some kind of in-group assurance, their wearers’ actions weighted with a certainty that Moon’s lack.
Even at home there’s no balm for Moon’s rootlessness, not when home is one of the crammed budget estates that sprang up during the state’s ten-year public housing plan of 1973. Someone’s always bent over a railing, staring dead-eyed into the shared courtyard, or fixed on some altercation two floors down. Moon and Ping both live with their single mothers, listless but boxed in by lack. Unlike the fortressed privacy of luxury high rises, there’s a fated openness in housing blocks this packed. The walls are as good as foam boards; secret conversations in tiny bedrooms carry the din of the outside world. In a perfect accident, the film’s audio is also textured with noise, a lo-fi buzz that sticks to all the diegetic sound.
Of course, Moon falls in love with Ping—and of course, this whole time, she has been terminally ill. Somewhere near the end—her end—the trio wanders into a cemetery as stacked and vertical as anything in this city. They sprint between grey tombstones that spill down a deep slope, in search of Susan’s grave and hoping to reunite her with her last bloodstained missive. One by one, they climb onto the shrines and shout her name into the mist-snaked valley below, jokingly at first, like a search party broadcast, but as the “Susan!”s double and triple into the air, they start to take shape as a fortress against her worldly disappearance, warding off that cliché of second death as the last time someone says your name. There’s a similar impulse in all of Chan’s films, this tireless naming and making seen the smaller lives: gangsters and juveniles, sex workers and covert mainland migrants, edged out of the glossy city’s end-of-century victories but made permanent by someone who knew how.