Published: 10:46, March 17, 2023 | Updated: 17:03, March 17, 2023
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By Chitralekha Basu

The Hong Kong Arts Festival returns to the stage with a range of new homegrown works that seem to have been impacted by the pandemic, one way or another. Chitralekha Basu reviews some of these and a couple of overseas productions.

Ling Man-lung in the persona of the Monkey King in the musical Yat-sen. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Hong Kong Arts Festival’s (HKAF’s) commitment to showcasing local talent and culture continues. It’s evident in the festival’s ongoing edition, its first to go fully live since 2019. 

The pandemic came in the way of HKAF hosting live shows in the last three years. While the creative teams behind new HKAF commissions were beginning to lose count of the number of times their events were postponed or moved online, in the bargain they had more time and headspace to fine-tune the works in progress and even revisit the ones they thought were finished. 

Yat-sen reimagines Sun Yat-sen’s life as a young reformist leader. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Products of the pandemic years, the works being premiered at HKAF’s 51st edition are probably more emotionally fraught than they had set out to be. While there is a confident, buoyant vibe about them that comes from surviving an existential crisis, there is also perhaps an undercurrent of despondency and grief, knowing how helpless and expendable human beings can be when pitted against forces beyond their control.    

If there is a moment that epitomizes the contrary emotions of courage and vulnerability, determination and doubt, it is the one just before the curtains come down on the first act of Yat-sen. It shows the Chinese reformist leader Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) marking his first major successful uprising against the Qing rulers with an ear-splitting shriek, heartbroken because of the bloodshed and destruction the revolution has left in its wake. 

Sun Yat-sen, played by Ling (third from right), with his core group of allies. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Tang Wai-kit-directed musical reimagines the world of young Sun who eventually became the first elected leader of the Chinese Republic. Yat-sen opens with Sun (played by Ling Man-lung, 2022’s In Geek We Trust) protesting against blind faith through a symbolic gesture — the desecration of a folk idol at the temple of Pak Tai in Cuiheng village. It ends with his release from detention at the Chinese Legation in London and subsequent departure for Japan — the first stop in his journey trying to build a pan-Asian opposition against Western imperialism.  

Bookended by these two milestones is the story of the making of a leader who went on to be widely acknowledged as “the father of modern China”. Playwright Sunny Chan has interpolated the well-documented history of Sun and his Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese comrades (Chan Siu-bak, Yau Lit and Yeung Hok-ling), with a stylized dramatization of the adventures of the Monkey King and his cohorts from Journey to the West. The latter plays like a pantomime version of the story of the quartet shown arguing and poking fun at each other, as friends do, when they are not plotting a revolution. For when militant uprisings do happen in Yat-sen, there is nothing romantic or pretty about them.

In Loveless Romance, the presence of the other woman compounds the problems of a live-in pair. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Its male lead is unable to handle the demands of cohabiting. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The play examines noncommittal relationships, up close. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Challenges of cohabiting

If Yat-sen was three years in development, Cheung Tat-ming spent an equal amount of time writing Loveless Romance, a play he also directs. 

When Ho Tin (Wang Wei) and Hui Mung Yu (Annie Cheung) move in together, they make a pact to never fall in love. Ho is manifestly the more self-centered of the two. He is rude to Hui but physically prevents her from moving out. Also, he might be suffering from bipolar disorder — the reason why Hui, who is suffering from cervical cancer, cannot bring herself up to leaving him. There’s also a younger woman named Michelle (Kate Yeung) who seems to enter Ho and Hui’s story from time to time, further complicating the couple’s already problematic relationship. 

What could have been a tired rehash of familiar rom-com tropes (Friends with Benefits, No Strings Attached, both from 2011) is saved by the scriptwriter-director’s refusal to judge his characters. The script flows smoothly. The characters are melodramatic but the acting is nuanced. And if the ending seems too good to be true, it could be because it’s taking place in fantasy land, where indifference can easily be replaced with empathy. No questions asked. 

Scenes from Fredric Mao’s Cantonese Opera Classics Circa 2023. Tian Yuchuan (Hong Hai) and Hu Fenglian (Xiaoyu) in Hiding the Boat. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Dorgon (Wai Chun-fai) in Secret Vow. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang (Shirley Lin) in Secret Vow. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Zhao Ruzhou (Wang Zhiliang) and Xie Suqiu (Lin Yingshi) in Peeking at the Drunk. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Cantonese opera revisited

Cantonese Opera Classics Circa 2023 might be one of HKAF’s most cheerful homegrown productions this year. It certainly is one of its most spectacular, combining minimalist stage props (Ricky Chan) with immersive digital scenography (Oliver Shing). Director Fredric Mao, who adapted scenes from time-tested operas for a contemporary audience, highlights the complicated nature of modern-day dating and liaisons of convenience in the piece. 

For instance, in Secret Vow, adapted from Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang and Dorgon, the eunuch Dorgon (Wai Chun-fai) gently, and firmly, coerces the empress dowager (Shirley Lin), who has just lost her husband, into a relationship with him. She accepts, knowing she would need the eunuch’s help if her son, a minor, were to become king one day. 

The happy ending involving the union of scholar Zhao Ruzhou (Wang Zhiliang) and courtesan Xie Suqiu (Lin Yingshi)  in the opera The Butterfly and Red Pear Blossoms is given a cynical twist in Peeking at the Drunk. In a track set in the present, the man Suqiu tries to court prefers to go to a boy-band concert instead, leaving her to stain the pear blossoms red with her incessant tears. 

In a more-traditional setting, Wang charmingly plays the lovesick scholar with a tinge of self-mockery, all too aware of how ridiculous he is being.   

Adrian Kohler-created puppets in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

BERLIN-produced True Copy re-creates scenes from the life of master forger Geert Jan Jansen. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Imported gems

Yat-sen resonates with the Monteverdi opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (The Return of Ulysses), by lifting the veil on heroic achievement. Ulisse is directed by William Kentridge, a master of hand-drawn animated films and theater designer. He imagines Ulysses, the protagonist of Homer’s The Odyssey, and his queen Penelope as an old couple. A time-scarred, wrinkly and doddering puppet Ulysses (designed by Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company) is seen dying in a modern-day hospital even as another puppet embodying his spirit travels home to protect Penelope from the advances made by her persistent suitors. 

This puppet theater plays against the backdrop of video projections of animated drawings, and found footage of invasive surgical procedures as well as CAT and sonar scans, underscoring the idea that even a mighty hero is defenseless against eventual decay and death, like everyone else.

True Copy, staged by the Belgian theater company BERLIN, brings to life the story of master forger Geert Jan Jansen, who passed off several thousands of his own paintings as works by Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Hockney for over 20 years before a spelling mistake in a fake certificate authenticating a painting gave his game away. Directed by Yves Degryse (who also performs) and Bart Baele, the show starts off looking like a dramatization of investigative journalism but ends with a plot twist, eliciting gasps from the audience. True Copy questions the value attached to an original piece of art when an imitation can look just as good and give viewers no less pleasure.