There’s a cheesy quote that goes along the lines of ‘to know what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.’ It’s not always accurate, but in the case of Jenny Suen’s directorial debut (co-directed with cinematographer legend Christopher Doyle), it’s a phrase that echoes throughout the film more than ever.
The White Girl is a film about memory. Described as a homecoming for both Suen and Doyle, the film presents a distinctly different side of Hong Kong many of us have come to know. Devoid of skyscrapers and the congestion of the city, The White Girl returns us to a simpler time – it’s set in Tai O, the last fishing village in Hong Kong and a real life tourist attraction, an almost surreal vision of stilt houses and fishermen who travel via motorboat. In the film, Tai O is facing the threat of extinction when a corrupt village chief (Michael Ning) corroborates with greedy Chinese businessmen to turn the village into a megamall and superhighway.
What’s standing in their path though, is some protected old ruins deemed a historical site. Enter Japanese actor Joe Odagiri, who plays Sakamoto, a traveller taking up occupancy in the ruins. The ruins themselves are an inspired choice, a kind of liminal space trapped in the past, with an unexpected piano placed out on the balcony, as well as a gigantic panopticon-like camera obscura that gazes out upon the village. On the other hand, we have Angela Yuen, who plays the eponymous White Girl – a ghostly teenage girl who shades herself from the sun due to allergies, shunned by the fellow villages as a harbinger of bad luck. Model Yuen is cast perfectly in this role, her first onscreen appearance as the girl is perfectly still, mannequin-like in her complexion and practically porcelain, containing a sense of fragility and melancholia. The White Girl embarks on a deeply personal journey of finding out about her mother upon finding an old chest of clothing and a recording of her mother, a supposed former Miss Hong Kong (runner-up) who left as soon as her daughter was born.
When Sakamoto and the white girl meet, a kinda sorta love story begins to develop, each intrigued by the other. It’s a little trite, particularly with the awkward exchanges in accented English, but you’re never really meant to focus on the romance between the two, which functions instead as a metaphorical way for the two to grow in their own way. This is not a love story between two people; it’s a love story between its makers and Hong Kong.
The draw and allure of The White Girl’s narrative lies in the sheer beauty of the village, and the deep importance the film places on knowing one’s own history and preserving it. Beyond the oneiric mood the film puts one in, there’s a surprising amount of genuinely laugh out loud humour that laces the film as well – Michael Ning chews the scenes he appears in, excitedly expressing his nefarious plans for the village via toy trucks and Monopoly money, and we even get hilariously rude interpretations of the Chang’e myth from a troublemaker student (Tony Wu).
Armed with a dreamy story and jaw-dropping cinematography that work well to drive home the fading beauty of historical sites, the film brings out the inherent, almost physically painful loss in admitting the inevitable future towards gentrification, even as we fight to save these sites. Deeply metaphorical and worth a second watch, The White Girl is a very accomplished first feature from Suen, and heralds the coming of a new director with the knowhow and potential to add truly unique offerings to Hong Kong’s film canon.
SGIFF 2017 runs from 23rd November to 3rd December across various cinemas and venues. More information and ticket sales available from their website.