27 January 2021
For each of the features in competition, IFFR asked a critic, writer, academic or programmer to write a short reflection in a personal capacity. The resulting series of ‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Valerie Soe shines a light on Drifting.
Although perhaps not as well-known internationally as his compatriots such as Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Francis Ng Chun-yu is one of the best Hong Kong actors of his generation. His career stretches back to the 1980s, with recognition in Asia coming in 1999 for his explosive performance in Johnnie To’s classic gangster film The Mission, for which he won Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. That year Ng also won Best Actor from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society for Bullets over Summer and he has since gone on to a prolific career in the territory and beyond. So a new Francis Ng film is always something to celebrate, especially when he’s working with an up-and-coming new director like Jun Li (Tracy, 2018).
Perhaps more than any of his peers, Francis Ng acts with great physicality. In Drifting, Ng embodies the homeless junkie/ex-con Big Eye Fai by moving with a shambling, hunched shuffle, his half-lidded eyes aimlessly tracking. Yet despite Fai’s desperate existence, Ng never allows the character to lose his humanity. Fai is a deeply flawed protagonist but in Ng’s competent hands he becomes complex and sympathetic as the film depicts him sleeping rough in a shanty town below a roadside flyover in Sham Shiu Po, one of Hong Kong’s last working-class neighbourhoods.
Neither maudlin nor sentimental in his portrayal of Fai, Francis Ng shows great empathy for the downtrodden character without sugarcoating his addictions or his living conditions. One of the first images in the film is Fai sitting on a busy street corner unceremoniously shooting up with his pants pulled halfway down his hips, and throughout the rest of the film Ng is fearlessly unrelenting in his rendering of Fai’s haunted and afflicted character.
Director Jun Li does an excellent job of capturing Hong Kong’s contradictions as a beautiful yet harsh and heartless place that can be unforgiving for the weak and marginalised. Drifting is Li’s second feature after participating in the Fresh Wave Short Film Festival that nurtures Hong Kong’s young directors. It’s heartening to see a veteran like Francis Ng supporting a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers and helping to continue its cinematic traditions. Despite the chaotic upheavals now occurring in the city, there still may be hope for the future of its storied movie-making industry.
Valerie Soe is a filmmaker and writer based in San Francisco. She is the author of the blog beyondasiaphilia, where she writes on Asian/American film, music, art, culture and activism.
‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Discover more short reflections on the features in competition.