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Based from true story, primarily a conflict between two youth gangs, 14-year-old young boy's girlfriend conflict with the head of the gang for unclear reason, until finally there was a painfully incident.
Every story is worth telling as long as you have a wonderful storyteller
Ann Hui, an internationally acclaimed Hong Kong director, is perhaps the closer soulmate to Mike Leigh in world cinema today. "The Way We Are" tells the story of a hardworking, good-hearted widow (Mrs. Cheung) who is living with his teenage son (Ka-on) in a housing estate in Tinshuiwai, a suburb regularly featured in the news for all the wrong reasons - family suicide packs, problem teens abusing drugs and massive unemployment.
At the start we see the two circling around in a tiny apartment with little communication, each trapped in their own worlds. Cheung works in the fruit counter in a supermarket, while Ka-on spends his summer vacation idling at home waiting for the results of his university entrance exam. Soon we are introduced to Cheung's extended family - then we learn that she spent her young adult life working hard in factories to support her two younger brothers, paid for their education and they've both since moved upward. But before she has her chance, her husband died and left her behind in a poor lower-class suburb.
Cheung soon befriends another widow, Granny, who's just moved in the same building. Granny has her grim tale - she was forced to live on her own after her only daughter died and her son-in-law remarried. Her grandson is now what remains of her "family", but he's sadly out of reach. She begins to imprison herself in her "single elderly" flat until Cheung slowly reaches out to her.
Then the somber tone of the story takes on an optimistic note. Cheung, ever so nurturing, takes Granny in and they soon bond to form their own support network. We also learn that Ka-on, despite the ear-ring and dyed hair, has inherited the strong, resilient and optimistic personality of his mother, ready and able to take up responsibilities to keep his little family together.
The relationship between Cheung and her brothers is also not as remote as it is suggested earlier in the film. While they're no longer as close and the brothers still put their own families before all else, they're here to help Cheung and Ka-on and willing to pay her back by promising to send Ka-on to study overseas if he should fail his exam.
At the end Granny's barriers have broken down, implanting herself in her new "family" and treating Ka-on like the grandson that she's no longer able to see ("Even when I die and become a spirit, I will continue to pray for his well being..") and there's still hope for happiness for both women.
Ann Hui's direction is bare but her fingerprints are everywhere. There are no comedic distraction to pull us out of the morbid tone of her characters' stories (like she did in "Summer Snow", dealing with the grimmer topics of aging and Alzheimer's disease). We instantly know what is in Cheung's mind (wonderfully plays by veteran TV actress Paw Hee-ching, deservedly named Best Actress in the HK Film Award) with every little gestures - that she's appreciative of having a good son with a hint of a smile, a loving expression that knows how life is still good and a light assuring grab of Granny's hand to pull her up from the dark pit of remorse.
While Hui is unique and successful in her own right, I can't help but thinking back to similar characters in Mike Leigh's films - Cheung has the same stubbornness of Poppy in "Happy-Go-Lucky", her relationship with the brothers is akin to the implicit blood-is-thicker-than-water bond Cynthia has with Maurice in "Secrets and Lies" and the overall "plotless" structure of storytelling is very much like "Life is Sweet".
And its lesson and massage maybe the same - that although life is hard for Cheung, Granny and Ka-on, it's still sweet and hope is everywhere as long as we still have the will to look for it.
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