July Rhapsody (2002) Directed by Ann Hui
Written by Ivy Ho
Starring Jacky Cheung, Anita Mui, Kar Yan (Karena) Lam

A delicate and sympathetic examination of the fragility of relationships as they endure time, reflection and the unexpected. Oddly I grabbed this from a bin when I caught Ivy Ho’s name, scribe behind the accursed Anna Magdalena, and was caught off-guard by the this genuine and touching portrayal of a middle-aged man confronting where his life has taken him, torn between struggling to preserve what he has and the impulse to cast everything aside.

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We meet Yiu Kwok Lam (Jacky Cheung) as he sits on the beach, nose buried in a book of classic Chinese poetry. His son, on the verge of leaving for university, tries to open his father to the brilliant sunshine that surrounds them, and instead finds himself listening to a story still being written. Lam teaches classics to an unruly Hong Kong highschool class who could care less, with the sole exception of Choy Lam Wu (Karena Lam), a precocious yet distracted girl who sketches Lam as she gazes adoringly at him. Her peers know about the crush, the other teachers know about the crush, Lam is more concerned that Wu focuses on her school work.

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At home Lam has a loving and supportive relationship with his wife, Man Ching (Anita Mui in her last role before succumbing to cervical cancer), and tries to be a good father to his two teenaged sons. They’re a close-knit family sharing a cramped apartment, all that Lam’s salary is able to afford. That money is tight is never made an issue but his old friends from school have all found great success since college. Although no one ever mocks him for becoming a public school teacher Lam’s pride is hurt every time someone picks up the check, or hires him to tutor their son.

The disconnection from his past is mirrored by his own inability to stay up on current trends and consequently with his younger son. For solace he turns to his wife who is too practical to feel much pity, his friend who works as a bartender (and who is the lowest rung on their alma mater totem pole) and his beloved poetry. Life is, despite the routine and daily struggles, still worth living.

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Until the bottom drops out. Man Ching reunites with a man from the past, presumably an old lover and quite definitely Lam’s mentor from his own highschool days. Their former teacher has returned, near death and alone, and Lam angrily refuses to discuss his wife’s visits to the hospital to see him to the end. Then the news comes that his friend’s bar will be closing and that he’ll be moving to Shenzhen (the overly industrialized boom-town on the mainland directly across from Hong Kong) for work. Lam’s poetry is now polluted by memories of the past, both of yearning and hurt, and he begins to reflect on his youthful ambitions before settling down with a family.

After enduring relentless advances from the persistent Choy Lam he begins a friendship. It’s almost accidental, except that she has been following him around town on buses, making every effort to find time to be alone. She’s mature for her age but still hopelessly young, filled with the spirit of adventure that had drawn Lam to classic poetry twenty years prior. Feeling a growing attraction but knowing that it jeopardizes his marriage, he’s forced to confront the divide between what was, is and could be. It’s not a very easy thing to do.

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The initial concern is whether this is rehashed Lolita, xeroxed a million times. It is not (they try to sell it like it is), nor does the story allow itself to become a study of sexual obsession and the forbidden fruit. Ivy Ho creates very realistic conflicts with no easy answers, questioning what is right and wrong. Lam must decide whether his obligations– family, profession and social mores– outweigh an attempt to revitalize his existence. Man Ching is confronting an obviously painful ghost from the past, knowing that she is hurting her husband by doing so, but keenly aware that their old teacher is alone and sick. The ties between them suddenly conflict violently with their individual ties to the past as well as their obligations to themselves as people. Choy Lam may not be a very developed character, more a plot device than a person, but she is a realistic teenager on the cusp of adulthood, too impatient to wait and hopefully young enough at heart to make her way in the world without being dragged down. The dialogue is never contrived, theatrical or embarrassing, nor is it mercilessly economical and stunted. The characters express themselves as people confused by disparate emotions would, hesitantly and then suddenly rash. The only deviation is an excellent role reversal between Choy Lam her teacher where he chastises her for keeping him after class to discuss a poor grade. There’s a brief respite from the melancholic and ruminative story, and both Cheung and Lam seem to enjoy the scene.

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The movie moves at its own pace but never dwells unnecessarily; this is a thoughtful movie and the camera drifts from scene to scene letting things take their own time. Ann Hui doesn’t feel the need to be flashy, relying instead on tasteful flashbacks to emphasize connections between the present and the past. Her greatest faculty is contrasting scenes, running a bleached out faculty meeting immediately after a richly textured dinner scene in a restaurant. Another trick up her sleeve is fleshing out the passages of poetry, intersecting shots of the Yangtze (a popular setting for Lam’s favorite works) with recitations and memories. It sounds like a lot but her methods are so subtle they never intrude on the core story or the characters. Her framing is interesting– in many shots not all of the characters are seen, tho to invoke isolation or the miserly conditions a teacher endures I couldn’t say. Towering stacks of papers, desks crammed together, crowded buses and concrete apartment blocks seem on the verge of collapse, weighing heavily on the inhabitants of this really beautiful film.

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As this is a heavy, dialogue oriented drama, the actors have little room to hide. All three of the leads are better known for either being pop stars or more popcorn fare but I think everyone really brought their characters to the table. Karena Lam proves to be more than easy on the eyes by never resting on her heels playing a one-dimensional coquette. Jacky Cheung excels as someone being torn in two directions, never betraying any of the decisions he faces as easy. As good as they both were Anita Mui stands out, trying to do the right thing despite her injured past, trying to be a good mother to two songs and a good wife to her husband, and anguished that these obligations compete. Her stoicism is backed by her fragility and it’s a very tense performance throughout.

There’s very little music and it never really goes for the heartstrings. The audio is good, conversations can be heard, and there’s really not much in the way of effects to worry about. The subtitles were literate and visible and the print looks pretty good although at times it seemed a little stretched. July Rhapsody was never released in the States but there is an all-region Hong Kong version which is available through Netflix.

Warning, the trailer’s quality sucks and the subtitles are not the ones used on the DVD. This also plays up the Lolita angle unfairly and might reveal more than you would like if you ever intend on watching this.