I didn’t know what to expect about Port of Call. It was an unplanned movie, which let the record show has had more failures than successes, but it wasn’t completely chosen out of the blue. I had a recommendation to watch this one.
What I got in return is a lengthy but mostly well crafted portrait of all the participants, both willing and unwilling, in the case of the disappearance of a young girl named Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li). The film starts with Jiamei wanting to move to Hong Kong and pursue a modeling career and at the same time, Officer Chong (Aaron Kwok) investigating the murder of a headless corpse. There’s no mystery or twist here. We learn right up from the start that Jiamei has been murdered. We also follow the killer, Ting (Michael Ning) who starts a suspect. And you’re probably wondering why I pronounce him as the killer without even a spoiler warning.
This is a not a detective film per se. It’s been called a police procedural in most descriptions of the film, but I object to say this is more about a human procedural. It’s Jiamei’s story of becoming a model and turning instead into a young escort. Ting’s history is also exposed as a young child living with the trauma of losing both his parents and becoming a flawed but still somewhat human individual who wants female company. And finally it is also the story of a Chong, a police officer who has to investigate crimes without the glamour and the glitz of a Hollywood cop film. He doesn’t dress flashy, he has to hitch a ride with a police squad to the crime scene, he’s divorced and lets his work absorb him. He’s not taking down a criminal mastermind. He’s just trying to solve a case and gets a little obsessed to find out the reasons why it all happen.
What we see is the Hong Kong without the bells and whistles, but rather the dirty walls, neighborhood slums and people trying to make it one day at a time. This movie humanizes each of its characters. It’s not a hero’s journey, it’s not a damsel in distress, it’s not classical good versus evil confrontation. Chong is out to learn as much of the victim as he does of his killer. As we follow along, Ting turns himself in while the policeman at the desk is almost ready to dismiss him until Ting says he’s guilty of murder. He doesn’t quite seem to regret his crime.
It’s particularly strange that this movie chooses to humanize Ting. He’s not an angel or has someone he actually does it all for. He’s a young man bored with his life that does small works with an old van, has a sometimes friend that works for a gang, and hangs around with prostitutes for company wishing for something more. The movie by no means excuses him, in fact although we know what he’s done and he paints a grim picture of describing the dismemberment in detail, we reach a point in which we see the crime itself. It’s very crude reminder as skin is peeled and guts are pulled. To the movie’s credit, the gore is never painted the way that a horror movie would. It’s almost unnecessary to see it, but somehow we are not excused from the scene.
It’s a little surreal to see Officer Chong saying goodbye to Ting as he leaves for jail, or bringing him books. He believes that Jiamei asked to be killed, but what Chong can’t understand is why Ting would even consider that request. We also get to see Chong interacting with his young daughter, and it seems almost a social call to arms to prevent her future to turn out like so many other young girls like Jiamei.
Recommended with reservations. The acting is great. Director Phillip Yung also writes the screenplay, which is original. However, it’s a lengthy movie without any action scenes and very slow buildup. There’s no satisfying conclusion or revenge or victory at the end. It’s one of those movies to appeal to your conscience more than entertain you.
That will do for now.
(Sources: Fantasia International Film Festival)