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Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Ripe with metaphor but not easy to digest

Durian Durian

Rating: * * *
Director: Fruit Chan
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: Mandarin/Cantonese
Now showing

It hardly comes as a surprise that a director with the ripe name of Fruit Chan should turn out a film titled "Durian Durian."

News photo
Mak Waifan (right) in Fruit Chan's "Durian Durian"

Named for the so-called King of Fruits, renowned for its horrible smell (one character in the movie asks: "Is there a dead rat in the room?"), "Durian Durian" places the spiky fruit smack dab in the center of its story, using it as a vast, encompassing metaphor for . . . well . . . hmmm.

Stinky on the outside, sweet and juicy on the inside, perhaps Chan is using the fruit as a metaphor for mainland Chinese perceptions of Hong Kong, whose hellish working conditions for illegal migrants and high wages simultaneously repel and attract so many mainlanders. And yet, Chan's characters in "Durian Durian" never really get to taste Hong Kong's nectar, so toss that theory. Eventually the viewer begins to suspect an advanced case of symbolism for its own sake, an opaque use of metaphor to make a fairly mundane story seem redolent with significance.

"Durian Durian" flits between two stories, almost at random. First up is a little girl named Fan (Mak Waifan), a mainlander from Shenzhen whose crippled father commutes to Hong Kong everyday to hawk cheap cigarettes. Her family manages to get three-month working visas (presumably, this is pre-reunification Hong Kong), which they overstay. Crammed into a tiny apartment in the Mongkok district, Fan and her mother spend their days washing dishes in basins in a narrow alley off of Portland Street.

One day Fan glimpses, and becomes fascinated with, a young prostitute named Qin Yan (Qin Hailu). With her stylish clothes and confident demeanor, Qin seems the very symbol of success to little Fan, immersed in her drudgery. Fan watches Qin walk down the alley every day, trailed by her pimp, until one day the pimp is struck unconscious by a massive durian.

Qin asks Fan's mother to call for help; since Qin also is a mainlander working illegally in Hong Kong, she fears dealing with the cops. Fan's family are in the same boat, though, so in the end, nobody calls, and nothing happens.

That's pretty much true for the entire film: Chan gives up on Fan's story early on, instead focusing on Qin and the daily humdrum of being a Mongkok working girl, which seems to comprise mostly of eating take-out food, answering cell-phone calls, taking lots of showers with clients and asking for tips. Qin is an utter blank, shutting down her feelings as she endures her routine, aiming for her target of serving 20 customers in one day.

Repressed emotions would seem to go with the territory, but when Qin leaves Hong Kong and returns to Heilongjiang in China's far northeast, you would expect some sort of payoff as this repressed experience is vented. As Qin meets family and friends, though, she carefully avoids discussing her time in Hong Kong, and her emotions remain veiled. It's true to life, but not very gripping to watch. The closest we get to glimpsing Qin's inner life is when she gets a nasty call on her cell phone saying: "Please come back: Hong Kong's men are starving for you." Her face clouds over as she clicks off the call.

The call girl as symbol of Asian capitalism and modernization, that drive to succeed monetarily at all costs, is a parallel that has been drawn again and again in cinema, from Singapore's "Mee Pok Man" to Vietnam's "Three Seasons" and "Cyclo," and literally dozens of Chinese films, most recently "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again." That film covered almost identical territory to "Durian Durian" -- a mainlander working as a Hong Kong prostitute -- and the results were just as dull. Both have been singled out for acclaim by critics more eager to champion the idea of Hong Kong indie cinema than to judge these on their own merits. Both, predictably, suffer from the main conceit of auteur cinema: weak scripts by directors who have only vaguely formed ideas that remain secondary to stylistic concerns. In the case of "Durian," it is detached minimalism.

Some of the cinematography here, by Lam Wah-chuen, gives the film a beauty that belies its grungy Mongkok locale, particularly a sequence of Qin stretching her tired limbs in the alley, framed in silhouette and bathed in blue light. A jaunty montage set to a pop song, though, aims for a pop feel that undermines the bleak realities of Qin's routine.

Chan's biggest cheat though is in the contrast he draws between the rapacious demands of money-making in Hong Kong versus the simpler, albeit limited, lifestyle in the mainland. The truth is that there are women like Qin working in the karaoke bars of Shanghai and most every other sizable mainland city as well. Then again, it must be easier to decry the corrupting influences of capitalism within pre-handover Hong Kong than it would be to address identical realities within contemporary "socialist" China.

Perhaps there's something here that I'm missing, but I'm not sure it's worth hacking away through that thick skin to get at the fruit inside.

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