Hong Kong A-lister Shawn Yue star as a man battling bipolar disorder in young helmer Wong Chun's low-budget feature debut.
A mentally ill stockbroker struggles to reconcile with his estranged father and his perturbed ex-fiancée in Mad World, the first full-length feature of Hong Kong director Wong Chun. Bolstered by Shawn Yue's strong and layered performance as a man trying to overcome his bipolar disorder, the film offers a modest and empathetic character study of a troubled young man's attempt to contain his own inner chaos in a maddening city where space, sympathy and sanity are at a premium.
While slightly unwieldy in its structure, Mad World is an audaciously unshowy indie drama that contemplates its character's (and Hong Kong's) problems without resorting to the excessive histrionics or simple sloganeering prevalent in supposedly socially engaged films from the city. Financed to the tune of just $258,000 by the Hong Kong Film Development Council's First Film Initiative — the other two beneficiary projects being the baseball movie Weeds on Fire and documentary-maker Cheung King-wai's fictional debut Opus 1 — Wong's film should score some moderate success at home and festival presence abroad, starting with its screenings at Toronto's Discovery program this week.
Veering away from his trademark upright, pretty-boy persona, Yue (Love in a Puff, Wild City) plays Tung, who begins the film walking free after a spell in a psychiatric hospital. Meeting him there is his father (Eric Tsang), who brings him to his home — a cramped bedsit in a downtown tenement where he lives while not on the road in his long-haul truck driver job. Quickly, flashbacks reveal Tung's problems with his mentally disturbed mother (Elaine Jin) and his fiancée (Charmaine Fong), while a huge row in the present lays bare Tung's fury about his father's abrupt departure from the family when he was a child.
All the blanks in the narrative are more or less filled well before the film hits the halfway mark — and that's a lot of digressions into the past and toward other people in a very short period of time. While Wong has certainly tried his best in keeping all these detours in check, they inevitably distracts the film from what is the most central and powerful tenet of the narrative — that is, the protagonist's slow and agonizing grapple with his life, complete with the extreme emotional highs and lows his disorder carries him through.
For his part, Yue has delivered a very nuanced turn that depicts his character's roller-coaster temperaments — lethargic one moment, lively the next. Wong should have trusted his star by making his performance the cornerstone of the story, so that the viewer could feel Tung's trauma by traveling with him on his bumpy journey of recrimination and recovery through catharsis, confession and finally conciliation — with others, and also with himself and the deadly act he is revealed to have committed.
Similarly, Wong should also have persisted with the more audacious mise-en-scene that prevails at the beginning of the film: the camerawork (courtesy of Zhang Ying), which illustrates the small living spaces and petty minds that, indeed, make Hong Kong a mad world. With Yue on a roll and his crew offering impressive backup — Cheung Siu-hong's production design of all those confined and dour living spaces, or Yusuke Hanato's gently melancholic score — Wong should have banked on saying less to show more.
While not exactly a full-fledged success, Mad World offers an intimate showcase of a promising director, an actor who can do much more than he's usually asked to, and a kind of non-manic storytelling that pays for those who are patient enough to pay attention.