Mom’s business is poised to be a big hit at the Hong Kong box office, and possibly even one of the city’s most important movies of 2022. That’s because it features two new faces of the boy band MIRROR. Although MIRROR’s momentum was halted after a terrible tragedy at their status affirmation concert, their meteoric rise to total cultural dominance in Hong Kong nonetheless saved and revitalized the entertainment industry (or perhaps even the city itself). Director Kearen Pang isn’t far behind, having made her award-winning debut film 29+1, the theater multi-hyphen appeared as a mentor on the talent show where the members of MIRROR were discovered. Thus the distributor (alongside groups of very fervent fans) marketed Mom’s business like pop entertainment, with a touch of arthouse elevation.
Unfortunately, Mom’s business only succeeds at the first. He will definitely appease fans with his jokes, heart and charm. But his attempts at depth are messy at best. The case isn’t literal – the story involves retired talent manager Mei-fung (Teresa Mo) who re-enters the company and turns waiter Fong Ching (Keung To) into a young idol, sparking jealousy of his teenage son Jonathan (Jer Lau). Inspired by the work-life balance of MIRROR director Ahfa Wong, who has become a celebrity herself, the premise is certainly unique, but the tangential storyline and thoughtless visuals limit the film’s emotional reach and maturity. .
The script tries to cover many ideas, from pop star idolatry to classic family repression. But the dramaturgy is too weak to support these themes. A Hollywood textbook three-act structure is obviously not necessary, especially not in world cinema, but it could help a lot Mom’s business. After establishing the premise, the script begins to lose its meaning; he remembers the conflict, but finds it in forced places. The subplots involving absentee fathers and the pressure of exams struggle to fit together, and the main storylines drift further and further into the second hour, with Jonathan almost becoming an afterthought. That means his big emotional turn at the end falls flat and feels undeserved.
Although the script has fundamental flaws, it tries to compensate with detail. The film establishes the middle pretty well; Mei-fung and Jonathan’s upper-middle-class lifestyles are surprisingly accurate and authentic, with Pang getting the specifics of Jonathan’s International Baccalaureate Exams and World Academic Plans perfectly. Compared to other recent Hong Kong films, the dialogue sounds like what real people would say, with legitimately funny jokes and a change of language carefully coming from the mouths of the good characters. With his sharp, repressed pen, Pang crucially and refreshingly avoids Hong Kong cinema’s unrealistic penchant for constant screaming matches. The downside is that there is too much dialogue; the heavy doses of monologues and conversations expose Pang’s theatrical background, rendering the whole affair non-cinematic.
Among the elements that build the middle of the film, there are a few that noticeably stand out. The film borrows and names many elements from Keung’s own career, ranging from songs and musical awards to his real fans being hired as extras in a fictional concert scene. There are many celebrity references and cameos that are deeply rooted in Hong Kong pop culture lore. But the film stays on the level of checking cute names and never really develops a meta-narrative. Pop stars have often been cast as fictional pop stars in movies, but Mom’s business hardly uses this angle. Although Pang uses real songs to playfully alter our suspension of disbelief, the forces behind forming a pop star remain mythical and elusive, the consequences ignored or superficial. The film is entrenched in the industry, but does not comment on it.
One can easily defend this by saying that the film is not concerned with celebrity culture or showbiz. But does it have anything significant to say about its main theme of family relationships? The Family Conversations (and lack thereof) surprisingly enough capture modern Confucian family repression, but they appear too sporadically and never delve into a solid argument. The film reveals tragic stories, but devotes too little time to them, so their resolutions are either trivialized and too easy, or forgotten amid the vast web. The script has laudable thematic ambitions, but let’s not confuse them with productive exploration.
The film’s disparate pieces are certainly not helped by its sorely lacking visuals. The first reel may be thematically relevant, but it’s also the most misjudged aesthetically. It goes from a long slice of life, to a quirky YouTube-ready edit, to a series of fourth wall jumps, and finally to a cover that breaks the basic rules of 30º and 180º. Luckily, Pang lets go of that wild temper afterward and settles on calmer standard cover with only the occasional thump. The aesthetic is nice but autopilot with shallow depth of field and cart shots; the production design is tasteful and meticulous, but also overly polished and brand new.
This means that the film has almost no visual ideas; there is no visual strategy or personality. It’s deadly for a film with such large swathes of dialogue – you can practically hear the stage lights and silent auditorium whenever a character speaks. Without a visual plan, the film relies too heavily on an embarrassing amount of reminiscing editing and still fails to reach its emotional climax. It’s rare for a Hong Kong movie to go over two hours, and it’s definitely unwarranted towards the end of Mom’s business.
The target audience might not care about all of the above, but they will surely be there for the star performances. Pang wisely adopts Keung’s screen image and well-replayed brooding to his advantage; Keung performs the only scene in which he has to move. Lau, stripped of his voice as armor, struggles to keep up with his more demanding role. For the most part, he stays in variety TV mode, never really probing deep into Jonathan’s psyche. Mentoring the two is veteran Mo, largely avoiding TVB-style melodramatic extremes and delivering a tempered performance.
Mom’s business may have ultimately been mismarketed; as a commercial game, it delivers the laughs, tears, and caption-ready catchphrases. It’s a good time for everyone; it is even rated G in Hong Kong. No Hong Kong film is apolitical these days, but this one comes close – the familiar Cantonese title and 100% Hong Kong setting are localist nonetheless. There has always been little room for in-between dramas or genderless city life in Hong Kong cinema, so it’s up to Pang to stick to those roots. But compared to his first film 29+1, Mom’s business is even more theatrical and less cinematic, and talks too much without getting to the heart of the matter. Even for commercial cinema, Hong Kong has always and can still do better.
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Mom’s Affair (Cantonese: 阿媽有咗第二個)-Hong Kong. Dialogue in Cantonese and English. Directed by Kearen Pang. First released on March 12, 2022 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival, with a theatrical release on August 11, 2022 in Hong Kong. Duration 2h 6min. With Teresa Mo, Keung To and Jer Lau.
This article is part of The escape from the cinemas dedicated coverage of the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival.