NYAFF 2023 Review: The Sunny Side of the Street


For decades now, there has been growing concern over the refugee population in Hong Kong. With stricter laws limiting their chances to become naturalized citizens and the wait times for work visas resulting in many families starving, younger generations are pushing for politicians to finally address these terrible living conditions. Why are these individuals suffering when Hong Kong is meant to be a prosperous nation?

The Sunny Side of the Street isn’t a film about providing answers or potential solutions to the poor living conditions of refugees and asylum seekers, but one that puts a spotlight on a cultural problem many don’t even realize is there. By spinning a fictional tale of a man doing his best to make up for past mistakes by smuggling a Pakistani boy to freedom, it highlights how tremendously difficult it can be for refugees to work their way out of debt under the current system.

While a few lacking plot threads drag some scenes down, the film is incredibly effective at getting its message across.

《白日青春》THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET 正式預告 Official Trailer|3月30日上映

The Sunny Side of the Street
Director: Lau Kok-rui
Release Date: November 15, 2022 (Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival), July 17, 2023 (NYAFF)
Country: Hong Kong

Taking place in the heart of Hong Kong in what appears to be current day, The Sunny Side of the Street chronicles the story of Yat (Anthony Wong) as he encounters a Pakistani refugee named Ahmed (Inderjeet Singh) and causes huge issues for him. While the details of why Yat is so miserable come later in the film, it’s clear from the get-go that some event caused him to become disillusioned with life and he takes it out on everyone around him. That and he has a classic case of racism that manifests in his badgering of Ahmed.

After crashing his taxi into Ahmed’s truck, Yat winds up being late for his son’s wedding reception. His son, Hong (Endy Chow Kwok-yin), has grown distant and is harboring a grudge against his father for abandoning him when he was younger. Yat won’t listen to his family or his doctor and has been indulging in his alcoholic tendencies despite his son’s efforts. When the two get into an argument, Yat leaves to go about his night.

This brings Yat back into contact with Ahmed, who is also having struggles with his own son, Hassan (Sahal Zaman). Due to the poverty that Ahmed has been living in with his family, Hassan has fallen into a bad crowd and is taking to stealing. After attempting to educate his son while at a community wedding, he blows up at Yat and a small incident unfolds. Yat attacks Ahmed and the two wind up at the local jail, jeopardizing their futures.

The Sunny Side of the Street

© Golden Scene Company LTD

To wrap this summary up, Ahmed explains the truth of the situation while Yat tries to make things go away by pulling some strings with his son, who was just promoted to policeman. Eventually, Yat takes to intimidating Ahmed and when Ahmed attempts to stand up for himself, Yat accidentally kills him in a car crash. For the first time in Yat’s life, he is remorseful.

As far as setups go, The Sunny Side of the Street gets right into the heart of what its story is all about. While the sociopolitical elements eventually begin to take a backseat, the drama of the situation is where the true magic unfolds. Yat takes an interest in Hassan’s safety and begins to help him under the guise of being a state-funded volunteer. He sacrifices everything to ensure that Hassan doesn’t wind up in jail, with some obvious twists and turns along the way that give both actors plenty of opportunity to flex their chops.

The premise isn’t all that original and in some way, I feel like The Sunny Side of the Street is similar to films such as Crash or Babel. Unlike those films, its series of coincidental events don’t feel completely contrived. This movie also does more to highlight the cultural and class divide between its characters than the overly cartoonish racism found in Crash. This film feels like it could be a true story, even if some of the events could best be described as pure fantasy.

© Golden Scene Company LTD

That doesn’t free the film from some lacking narrative elements. While veteran actor Anthony Wong gives a stellar performance, his character is mostly an emotional mess. We do learn why that might be the case, but he doesn’t have a character arc so much as a straight line until the ending. The early focus on Ahmed, as well, doesn’t really delve into how his family migrated to Hong Kong or why he chose to seek asylum in a foreign land. He has a dream of taking his family to Canada, but apart from saying it is a better place, we don’t learn if he has any aspirations once getting there.

I suppose none of that matters in the moment-to-moment sequences that take place. While it can be heavy-handed at times, The Sunny Side of the Street highlights the lack of opportunities that Hassan and the children in his situation have. We get to see him and his friends stealing bikes off the streets, callously stealing a dog in the middle of the day, and getting sucked into gang life as if it were normal. Hassan’s mother, as well, struggles to keep track of him as she is dealing with her own problem of potentially raising another child in Hong Kong (though that also goes nowhere).

None of this is inherently bad, but what saves The Sunny Side of the Street is the relationship that blossoms between Yat and Hassan. Yat is maybe not the best caretaker as he buys beer for the young boy, but his guilty conscious compels him to break the law to help Hassan. There’s a speech between Yat and his son Hong during the opening where Yat asks, “Why are you so eager to help everyone else, but not your old man?” Weirdly enough, Yat begins helping others instead of his own son, almost as if to admit defeat in being a father.

© Golden Scene Company LTD

It’s this character drama where The Sunny Side of the Street just works. It doesn’t hurt that first-time director Lau Kok-rui keeps the pacing succinct while also using minimalist editing to really highlight his point. The sparse music lets actions and choices sink in while the cinematography from Leung Ming-kai effectively sells the isolation that both Yat and Hassan feel at specific points. It’s always a beautiful film to look at, even in the more mundane situations.

I just wish that the plot was stronger or took a bigger stand against the problems it highlights. Maybe that is a foreigner’s lack of perspective coming in, but I want to know more about how refugees became such a big part of Hong Kong and why the government there isn’t doing anything for them. Then again, it’s not like the American government does anything for its refugees and migrant workers, either.

When all is said and done, The Sunny Side of the Street has enough quality elements in it to make it worth a watch. Its sociopolitical backdrop and focus on the struggles of refugee life make it an important film at the moment. With an excellent performance from Anthony Wong and child actor Sahal Zaman, it also gives the more picky of filmgoers a reason to pay attention. Maybe not everything comes together as well as it could, but then that almost works as a mission statement for this film’s plot.




The Sunny Side of the Street doesn't always connect on its narrative elements, but features great performance and a well meaning intention.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.