July Rhapsody

Reviewed by YTSL

Sometimes, I’m glad that I don’t always keep my promises.  To wit: Prior to my checking out that which earned three 2002 HKFA awards (for Best Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Newcomer) and eight nominations (in the Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Art Direction categories as well as those for which it emerged triumphant...but, somewhat inexplicably to me, not for Kwan Pun-Leong’s always-immaculately-attuned-to-the-situation cinematography), I had actually vowed to not view any more Ann Hui helmed films.  So if I had stayed faithful to my word, I wouldn’t have been blessed with the kind of viewing experience that is not only satisfyingly enthralling while it lasts but also effectively lingers in one’s mind, imagination and maybe even heart for days -- not just minutes and hours -- afterwards plus demands to be shared with and by others.

To be sure, JULY RHAPSODY is not the kind of work that I -- and many other Hong Kong movie fans -- might seem to readily enjoy.  By this, I mean that this understatedly dramatic effort’s pace is one that’s more unhurried than electric or electrifying, and also that many of the most meaningful occurrences that take place within what appears to be equal parts character study cum intersecting pair of parallel stories consist of (long) delayed actions and overdue reactions are handled in ways that are more low-key (as well as subtly plus sophisticatedly) than might be expected.  Additionally, there’s the fact of this intelligent Ann Hui and Derek Yee co-production possessing an aesthetic tone that is quietly, but also distinctly, and thus potentially off-puttingly, “art house”.
Then there’s the possibility of there appearing to be nothing inherently exciting about its primary personality and subject matter: A mid-life crisis-undergoing teacher of Chinese literature (Mr. Lam is excellently portrayed by Jacky Cheung); whose relationship with his wife of twenty years (Ching is well played by a “de-glammed” -- and surprisingly convincingly ordinary appearing -- Anita Mui) is being placed under some stress by, for one thing, a skeleton in her schoolgirl closet having recently come back to haunt she who now is the mother of two (the elder of whom is a young man named Ang -- i.e., “unharmed” -- who comes in the admirably unobtrusive form of Shaun Tam) and, for another, his coming to be aware that one of his female students (the precociously confident Wu is complexly essayed by the cinematic debut-making Karena Lam) is -- to say the least -- infatuated with him.  Furthermore, while some people might see the inclusion of Eric Kot (as the friend of Lam who was a dullard at school and still is far from a roaring success in his later life) in JULY RHAPSODY’s cast as a potential crowd-pleasing concession, some others might have considered the very presence in this film of not just one but two individuals (with Jacky Cheung being the other) who have been guilty of grossly over-acting in the past to be a good reason to stay clear of it!
Considering this scenario, I think that it is all the more very much to the credit of the likes of scriptwriter Ivy Ho as well as director Ann Hui that they didn’t opt to “spice up” JULY RHAPSODY’s articulately relayed main and subsidiary tales with the kind of majorly disastrous plot twists that have sullied most of the other offerings from the film-maker widely seen as Hong Kong cinema’s female doyen that I’ve viewed.  Ditto re their having resisted what must have been a real temptation to go for the sort of heavily melodramatic -- or, worse still, heavy-handedly moralistic -- method of presentation that would have ruined this truly mature feeling film whose: appropriately starkly unflowery Chinese title translates into English as “Men (at) Forty”; and down-to-earth protagonist’s joyless sounding personal credo appears to be that “life is a never ending examination”.
Instead, those who are responsible for bringing audiences this ultimately emotionally moving plus generally mentally stimulating as well as technically proficient work appeared to have realized that it can be a real achievement to breathe substantive life into characters who are ordinary but nonetheless hardly uninteresting.  Still, IMHO, the even greater accomplishment of JULY RHAPSODY’s makers is their managing to pay honest tribute to, plus instill an appreciation of, the considerable amount of effort that’s involved in doing such as retaining a long-term: enthusiasm for an unfashionable interest (in Lam’s case, old works penned by long or close to dead persons -- including the master poet who “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”’s Li Mu Bai was named in honor of and a former favorite high school teacher (played by Tou Chung Wah) -- that are full of high-minded, and consequently not often accepted, advice or references to Mainland Chinese locales -- including the soon to be under water Three Gorges* -- that many Hong Kongers, never mind other non-residents of those areas, have never been to); dedication to passionately practicing a chosen vocational profession (e.g., the unfortunately increasingly disrespected -- as well as non high-paying -- one of teaching); as well as commitment to a marriage (especially when you may have reason to suspect that your partner loves you less than you care for her or him).

My rating for this film: 9.

* For more about this (and related areas), check out the following linked articles:-