You never know what you’re going to get from a Pang Ho-Cheung film. In 2010, you got an ultraviolent slasher with Dream Home. In 2012, you got uproarious sex comedy Vulgaria. Before and between, you’ve got any other number of genres and genre twists. Each and every Pang Ho-Cheung film is a new and exciting experience.
Aberdeen is no exception. With his latest film, Pang Ho-Cheung takes a stab at the family drama and delivers a beautiful, emotional slice of life.
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Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Country: Hong Kong
Aberdeen centers on the Cheng family. There are seven members: father, daughter, son, their respective significant others, and a granddaughter. Most of them have grown up and grown apart, but even though it’s not a particularly close-knit family, there isn’t really much conflict between them. Most family dramas have serious drama (conflict = drama), but while the father and his son have some disputes, it has minimal bearing on any of the characters’ day-to-day lives. Interpersonal conflict is nearly – though not entirely – nonexistent.
Instead, each character fights their own demons, and despite its 98 minute runtime all but one gets a serious subplot expanding on their internal conflicts. Some of these are pretty small, but others ones could be potentially ruinous to the future relationships. Oddly, pretty much none of this is revealed to other characters, even inadvertently. Everyone, then, is facing their demons alone. But the demons don’t really stand in the way of total doom (again, no one finds out about anything), but they do threaten contentedness. Aberdeen doesn’t have some big mystery to solve or story to uncover, and the characters aren’t looking to create perfect harmony; the film simply follows these people with their internal conflicts until they find contentment. And once that’sbeen achieved, the film ends. It’s refreshingly simple, but oddly so.
“Contentment” doesn’t feel much like a resolution to a problem so much as the feeling following the resolution, so I couldn’t help but think that nothing had really been resolved. And perhaps nothing really was, but when I saw everyone in their catharsis, I realized it didn’t really matter. It may have snuck up on me, but everyone made it through. And it didn’t feel cheap, because in retrospect it had had been building up the whole time. Throughout the film, the characters are building up their own little home. (The paper-craft world that the film periodically visits is an interesting example of that). Each moment is another sheet of paper making the walls sturdier and giving everything shape. But it’s not until the roof is added that the building really seems complete. In their final revelations, they complete that building, a place where everything is okay or a place where their demons cannot escape – take the metaphor however you’d like.
That paper-craft I mentioned before is a fantastical component added that makes an appearance throughout the film. It’s not a real place, more a representative one. Only two characters ever enter this dream world in two very different situations, but in both cases it pushes forward their own arcs in a significant way. And its presence is always felt. While the world is very real, there’s an underlying fantasy to everything. But that’s true in life as well, and sometimes that little bit of fantasy is necessary to illuminate something fundamental about the “real” world.
It’s worth noting here that Aberdeen is ridiculously gorgeous, especially for a film of its type. Family dramas aren’t generally revered for their visual styles, but Pang Ho-Cheung’s latest is absolutely striking. There’s nothing really complicated about it, but the composition and lighting (anamorphic lens flare abound) creates an extremely cinematic atmosphere that give a hyper-real feeling that could work against it but doesn’t.
That’s probably because of the uniformly excellent performances. Because it’s all so internal, every character needs to function on multiple levels (publicly and privately), and they all pull it off with aplomb. Each person’s moments felt as powerful as everyone else’s. Louis Koo (who was in five films at NYAFF this year) gets special recognition, not really because his performance was better than anyone else’s, but because he had the least to work with. His conflict doesn’t even become clear until past the halfway point, at first appearing to be something far more innocuous.
But the relationship between Koo’s character and his daughter is easily the best in the film. Every moment with the two of them feels like something that has actually happened between two people. Whether they’re having a serious discussion or playing Kinect Star Wars, it felt like such a natural relationship that I have trouble believing they left the set to different families.
Pang Ho-Cheung has reached new heights with Aberdeen. His films are always interesting and always worth seeing, but the bar has been set. Not just for his own work, but for any like it.