NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here.
It’s hard out there for a teenager. (By “out there” I mean Hong Kong, and by “teenager” I mean teenagers, obviously.)
Present day Hong Kong is no different in that regard from any other big city. Teens of all stripes run rampant through the urban streets getting into trouble the way kids are prone to do, but today’s world offers tribulations well beyond the ones faced by their street-walking predecessors. Relationships are born, experienced and ended through technology for its convenience but also for the distance it creates. Kids who feel marginalized by society or ignored by parents find new value and meaning in minor rebellions and ignoble acts of protest, all the while unaware of the the damage they’re doing to themselves and those around them.
May We Chat is really two films, two halves at least that don’t truly gel together in any meaningful fashion. One offers a vivisection on the modern teen world, warts and all, not in an effort to explain but instead simply to identify. The other attempts to place those exposed characters into a dangerously violent plot highlighting the new reality. Garishness replaces understanding, and we’re left with little more than amateur exploitation.
Three teenage girls spend their day chatting via WeChat (an app popular in China) and sharing pictures, but while they consider themselves to be friends they’ve never actually met. Chiu (Rainky Wai) is a deaf-mute who lives with her grandmother and does tricks for cash on the side. (It’s technically called “compensated dating,” but you know, semantics and all that.) Wai-wai (Heidi Lee) is equally in need of cash, and not just because her mom is a drug addict and she has a younger sister to look after. But rather than turn to hooking she has a steady boyfriend who jokingly pays her after sex. Yan (Kabby Hui) meanwhile has none of those problems. She’s a rich girl who likes expensive items and bad boys, not always in that order.
News reaches Chiu and Wai-wai that Yan has attempted suicide and shortly thereafter gone missing, and they decide that they may be her best chance at being found. Together with a handful of friends, enemies and acquaintances — many of whom interact via WeChat in some fashion or another — they set out to find their missing “friend.”
The WeChat app is real and used incessantly in the film as the primary form of communication between characters. Texts and emojis appear onscreen during finger-fueled back and forths, and the app’s other selling point (apparently) — the ability to leave short voice messages — is utilized almost entirely in lieu of actual phone conversations.
Writer/director Philip Yung is adamant in showing the ingrained importance of technology in the teen’s lives, and he makes his point early on as Yan and the others seem to only acknowledge things as real once they’ve been captured in their iPhones. But he’s interested in more than simply a slight commentary on youth culture, and that’s where he goes awry. Chiu’s side job and Yan’s disappearance open the film up to Hong Kong’s sleazy underbelly, and it’s not a pretty sight.
But it’s not exactly presented as ugly either. It’s not enough for Yung to hint at Chiu’s job, he happily shows us in attractively explicit detail. It’s not enough to imply a teenage girl has been date raped, we’re shown it with shots and angles meant to balance the terror with the “sexiness.” His mishandling of tone continues into the film’s presentation as sound effects (there’s a “shwing” sound, I swear) and screen wipes create a light and playful atmosphere even as we know terrible things are occurring.
Just as damaging though is the lack of emotional connection we feel to two-thirds of the teen trio. Chiu connects with viewers both because of her situation and due to Wai’s performance, but the other two fail to do the same. Hui simply doesn’t have enough to do with her role, something evident in the fact that one of the only real emotional moments she gets is when her anger leads her to almost throw her iPhone. Lee meanwhile offers a solid performance, but her character shows no arc or growth throughout.
Yung seems interested in saying something profound here, but the script and its constant jumps back and forth in time offers little opportunity for viewers to latch on and begin to care. To be fair, local audiences will get more out of the film if only because Yung plays a bit with Hong Kong cinema’s past by including scenes from a 1983 movie called Lovely Fifteen that was also about the city’s youth. He even cast that film’s stars, Peter Mak and Irene Wan, in new roles here.
Seeing them in footage from 31 years ago contrasted with their weary adult personas here actually says more about the kids than any of the flashy app screens do. As much as the details may change — both the toys we play with and the trouble we get into — the result remains the same. We all grow up. We all get old. We all hope the next generation will be luckier.
The Upside: Rainky Wai’s character and performance
The Downside: Remaining characters never connect; time jumps confuse more than enhance the drama; overly melodramatic
On the Side: The WeChat app is available for iPhone, Android and Windows phones.