The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28 to September 12. For more details, click here.
The first thing to know about Memories To Choke On, Drinks To Wash Them Down is that it’s not nearly so downbeat as the (truly delightful) title might imply. This is actually a sweet natured, low key and downright lovely little film, one of the highlights of the festival.
As written and co-directed by Leung Ming-kai and American filmmaker Kate Reilly and, similar to the far less effective Dear Loneliness, this movie is an anthology of sorts, a collection of four short films with little thematic connection except that most of them are two-handers, revolving around the interactions of a single pair of characters.
The first story, “Forbidden City”, is a gently comic little sketch of a senile old woman and her caretaker. Bracketed by a hilariously epic music sting that becomes a motif throughout this little story finds professional caretaker Mia doing her best to wrangle the clearly senile Lam Chi Yin, better known as Granny. Convinced against her better judgment to disobey the orders of her employer (Granny’s son) and take Granny on a trip to a reunion with the people in her hometown, Mia must think on her feet when it is revealed that Granny might not have been telling the truth about their actual destination.
And that’s all there is to the story, really. These aren’t big stories of change, they’re very slice of life, like lovingly detailed anecdotes. “Forbidden City” sucked me right away, as we’ve barely met Granny before she launches into a story about how her son used to constantly scratch his wee-wee (her words, not mine) as a child. It will come up again. And again, and again, as it is gradually revealed that absent minded Granny keeps rotating through the same four or five stories over and over again.
There’s any number of ways this could be played: for cruel laughs, for tear jerking maudlin sentimentality, or outright trying to elicit heaving, full body sobs. Reilly opts for the more judicious choice of gentle laughs with a twinge of melancholy infused fondness. Cheok Mei Long is immediately endearing as Granny and Mia Mungil makes for a great deadpan foil. There’s a real sweetness to “Forbidden City” that sets things off to a great start.
“Toy Story”, a short involving two brothers (who go unnamed and are portrayed by Zeno Koo and Lam Yiu-Sing) who spend the evening checking in on their mothers toy store, which they are helping their mom prepare to sell. And again, that’s about it. Not much happens except the brothers goof around, eat some dinner, reminisce and look for a very valuable toy one of them has been hanging onto for a rainy day. Koo and Yiu-Sing have the easy chemistry of siblings, and the whole sequence proves to be a light and funny, low stakes hangout. That, in a thoroughly unexpected gag, reveals that it might not be as self-contained as we initially thought. But I’ve probably already said too much about a story that doesn’t require much explaining at all.
The third and most structurally interesting story in the entire film is “Yuen Yeung”, which stars Gregory Wong and Reilly herself, as John and Ruth, a pair of teachers who meet on the first day of school. We trace their journey through the school year over a series of shared dining out experiences as they either do or do not tilt in the direction of a romance.
The title comes from a drink that Ruth takes to, a coffee/tea combo with a troubling origin story. The die is cast almost immediately between the pair when John helps Ruth get the a carton of the stuff from a vending machine, but can’t help but condescendingly dismiss her drink choice.
It has to be noted that John in… a bit of a jerk. Your mileage may vary on how much his attitude gets to you, but for me there was just enough genuine affection and warmth to offset the moments where you just want Ruth to tell him to shut up instead of politely ignoring his passive aggressive commentaries.
Once again, not much happens here; we’re literally just watching people eat a bunch of food. But within that simple structural gambit lies a relationship that feels very interesting and very, very real.Wong and Reilly evince an awkward, slightly prickly chemistry as the wide-eyed expatriate finds herself falling in love with all that Hong Kong has to offer from under the guidance of her handsome yet occasionally irritating peer. And it’s fascinating to track the evolution (or de-evolution; the sequences don’t always take place in chronological order) of their dynamic, as the two friends (or more? It’s never fully clear one way or the other) navigate their cultural differences and the most likely fleeting nature of their connection. It’s a study in behaviors and while not everyone can relate to Ruth’s very specific sense of being a stranger in a strange land, pretty much everyone has had this kind of relationship in their lives, and to see it portrayed with such unspoken nuance and sensitivity is a rare, human-sized treat.
The final sequence is as direct a switch from the previous stories as imaginable; not only does it only feature one primary character, but it’s not even fiction: “It’s Not Gonna Be Fun” is a documentary about youthful political candidate Jessica Lam, running against Pro-China Sham Shui Po district councillor Lau Pui Yuk in the highly consequential 2019 Hong Kong elections and trying to topple their 12-year incumbency.
Jessica Lam is basically the only person in the piece we get to know with any depth, but truth be told, she’s all you need. The barista turned candidate has enough personality that for a little longer than I’d like to admit I was convinced that Lam was two different characters… who just happened to have the exact same tattoo in the exact same spot.
In my defense, the way the film is structured put me in that mindset: there’s such a disjunction between the driven, motivated woman handing out flyers and barkers paeans to major reform in the streets to the quiet oddball who talks about her utter uselessness and desire to just be human garbage.
Those aspects don’t really synthesize for me until the scene switches to Lam working at Bound, the bar where she works when she’s not campaigning and we meet her trusty aide de camp Star, who she relies on for… well, just about everything, and who she half-jokingly insists will be forced to take over the campaign himself if anything happens to her. We don’t get a lot of their dynamic, but what we do get is gold.
In the end, Jessica Lam proves an enigmatic but entertaining figure to follow around, and without going into spoilers as to the results of the election (though it’s not that hard to find out how things went if you simply can’t stand the suspense), it would be interesting to see what happened next. But even with the post script, “It’s Not Gonna Be Fun” is a pretty entertaining real life character study, and an engrossing end to the collection of stories that makes up Memories To Choke On, Drinks To Wash Them Down. Nowhere near the morose slog the title might indicate, this is a light hearted but never shallow glimpse at life on the panorama that is Hong Kong, and yet another NYAFF highlight.