Bends, the feature debut from writer-director Flora Lau, isn’t a film that, with its potent framework of famial dissaray, should struggle to engage on an emotional level. Yet this slight, deliberate tale of strained families keeps the audience at a distance, making it a curiously uninvolving sit that rarely engages on even the most basic level.
A story revolving around two families which become ever more intertwined, the first half of this equation is Anna Li (Carina Lau), a housewife who has married into money, and when her businessman husband is away, she kills time by lunching around Hong Kong with her friends. Driving her from place to place is Fai (Chen Kun), a lower-class sort living across the border in Shenzhen, and almost simultaneously the pair’s troubles seem to coincide; Anna’s husband suddenly disppears without a trace, while the urgency for Fai to get his pregnant wife into a Hong Kong hospital — while avoiding their violation of the one-child policy — reaches its fever pitch as her gestation progresses.
A concept this meaty should not want for dramatic urgency, though Lau directs traffic with an unsavory, lackadaiscal sense of pacing, a slow-burn that feels entirely the opposite of what the film should be shooting for. Both scenarios are time sensitive to a point, and so to slowly unspool the facts makes for a challenging, often frustrating sit. The primary issue this causes is a lack of emotional investment on the part of the viewer. It should not be a problem to make us care for these people, especially Fai’s pregnant wife, yet the direction, nicely lensed but coldly lacking any sentiment whatsoever, keeps us at a distance.
What Lau manages to capture better than anything else is the satisfied malaise of Anna, cruising around for dinner with her similarly priveliged friends and essentially having the problem of not having a problem — at least, until she comes to surmrise that, with a stack of cancelled credit cards, her husband has likely bailed. The unfussed manner in which these scenes are juxtaposed with Fai’s more testing situation fails to spark the expected connect between the two; with a literal border sitting between them and their locales, Lau clearly wants to formulate a potent compare-and-contrast exercise.
Instead, scenes are appended together without much care for thematic consistency or even really much logic. What are we supposed to take away from this laboriously paced collection of images? The disparate strands, which should not seem so distant in the first place, fail to mesh into a cohesive whole, leaving us curiously unsatisfied even during the more eventful payoff. Yes, there are some pleasant role reversals throughout — the rich, powerful woman becomes timid and lonely while the humble family man is driven to decisive action — but by the time this happens, the film will likely have already lost most viewers.
This is a film that rarely defies narrative expectation, shooting along its chosen bent in the most painstaking means possible. Lau’s spare approach leaves a void of emotion that could perhaps be filled with tighter editing above all else, something she will most certainly need for her sophomore feature to be a greater success.
The Upside: Sumptuously shot; concedes the difficulties facing Chinese couples who get pregnant for a second time; performers do well with the scant material they have.
The Downside: Direction is dispiritingly slack, denying the characters much agency and shoving them into the emotional background; a film like this needs to be deeply felt, and it ostensibly is not.
On the Side: Thanked in the credits is William Chang, frequent DP for Wong Kar-wai, no doubt an influence on the visually lavish sheen of the film.