Not without its flaws, this portrait of the perils of stardom is still a fascinating watch thanks to Heiward Mak's keen observations and Chapman To's lively performance
At first sight, the synopsis of 'Diva' may make it seem as if the movie were as vacuous as its subject matter – but don't let that fool you though, because there is really much more to enjoy and ruminate even in writer/ director Heiward Mak's latest. Essentially a cautionary tale on the perils of stardom, Mak's 'Diva' is surprisingly well-observed and insightful, made all the perceptive by a nice reel-real life twist that sees Joey Yung playing a celebrity modelled after herself.
Yes, the titular character is a singer simply named 'J', whose following is large enough for her to stage sold-out concerts at the Hong Kong Coloseum. Despite being on the pinnacle of stardom however, J is disillusioned by the demands of her career – not just her punishing schedule of rehearsals, filming and social engagements, but also the endless wheedling, backbiting and conniving concomitant with the job. That is, even if the latter is largely done by her slimy manager Manson (Chapman To), who has groomed her from the bottom up for the past ten years.
An opening act where Manson spreads a rumour just so a notable designer's (William So) latest dress can debut at her latest concert series at the expense of another (Fiona Sit) proves to be J's last straw – and after suffering a breakdown at one of her concerts, she retreats into obscurity while developing a relationship with a blind masseuse Hu Ming (Hu Ge) in a faraway village in China. Indeed, we share your incredulity, but you'll do better if you look past it as a mere narrative device to illustrate the considerations and compromises that J has to make in order to maintain her celebrity image – 'what will your fans think if they see that you have to date a blind man?' asks Manson.
In the meantime, Mak creates a complement for J in the form of rising starlet Red (Mag Lam), plucked from obscurity by Manson to be his next project while J takes an indefinite hiatus. A simple girl with a sweet voice and a naïve ambition to be a famous singer, Red learns the hard way the sacrifices she has to make on the road to success, particularly as her ongoing relationship with her boyfriend Rocky (Carlos Chan) quickly turns sour under the media glare and her work commitments. No matter which rung of the celebrity ladder you are, Mak's message is that there is always a darker and murkier side beneath the glitz and glamour.
Few films in our memory have attempted to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes of Hong Kong's entertainment industry, so Mak deserves kudos for tackling what would most certainly be a touchy subject. Certainly, she sidesteps some of the thornier issues, casting Manson as the sole puppet master pulling the strings behind J and Red's careers – though one would suspect in real life that it is the big bosses at the music labels who are the ones really calling the shots and perhaps getting the favours in return for a fast track to stardom.
Here, Mak only goes as far as to demonise Manson, as well as a film director (Gallants' director Clement Cheng in a cameo) who forces another wannabe singer Gennie (Venus Wong) to perform sexual favours on him. Mak's reservation to pull the envelope is understandable – backing this film is none other than Emperor, which for the uninitiated, is the label behind Joey Yung's music – but within the creative liberties she is able to exercise, Mak still manages to craft an intriguing behind the scenes look at the workings of the industry.
Admittedly, Mak does punch above her weight at times, and the fresh director with just two films under her belt ('High Noon' her debut and 'Ex' starring Gillian Chung her sophomore) lacks the experience to fully exploit the dramatic potential of such a story. Still, for what Mak lacks in flair, Chapman To makes up for it with verve in one of his best performances. Increasingly augmenting his slate as a dramatic actor, To (who also produced the film) is fascinating as the shady manager willing to do what it takes for his starlets – even if it means spreading anonymous tips to the press just so J and Mag get maximum coverage in the press.
Apart from To, both Yung and Lam essentially mirror their real life careers into the movie – and it is probably no secret that 'Diva' is conceptualised as a star vehicle for the former. Both are equally unremarkable – though the fault lies as much in these singers first and actors second as it does with Mak, who for some reason unbeknownst to us does not play to their strengths through showcasing their moves and voices in a live concert arena. Yes, the first time we hear one of Yung's songs is right at the end of the film, and while it may have been a stylistic choice, it would be easier to buy into the star she is supposed to be if we can identify with her in the shoes of a fan.
Despite its flaws, 'Diva' remains an interesting look at the life of a celebrity from the point of view of an ordinary human being transforming to become one as well as that of one trying to live out the life of just another human being. It may not be as revelatory as you'd expect it to be, but there is purpose to the telling of a story rooted in the realities of what we would normally not be privy to. With 'Diva' too, Mak has once again proved to be one of the exciting new faces of the Hong Kong film industry – and we're sure this 'Diva' will be one to watch out for in the years to come.
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