Port of Call (Film Review)

A balancing act between the deeply disturbing and hauntingly affecting.


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Characters:

  • Aaron Kwok as Detective Chong
  • Jessie Li as Wong Kai Mui
  • Michael Ning as Ding Chi Chung
  • Elaine Jin as May
  • Patrick Tam as Smoky

Details:

  • Hong Kong
  • Director: Philip Yung
  • Running time: 98 minutes
  • Release date: December 3, 2015

Quick Rundown:

Detective Chong of the Hong Kong Police Force takes the lead on a murder investigation of a dismembered 16-year-old prostitute girl, Wong Kai Mui. But when the killer, Ding Chi Chung, willingly surrenders himself and confesses to the crime, Chong turns his focus on why it happened at all. By delving deeper into the lives and histories of both the murderer and victim, Chong finds answers but struggles to understand what they mean.

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Anna’s Take

Port of Call is by no means for the faint of heart. In fact, if you’re at all squeamish about gore, this is not going to be the movie for you. In spite of the graphic nature of the story, Port of Call reveals itself to be less of an investigative thriller and more a philosophical melodrama. Using a non-linear format that jumps between timelines through a variety of flashback sequences, the majority of the story is dedicated to exploring the motivations of its characters. The crime itself isn’t given the spotlight, but is used as simply the vehicle to bring the characters’ personal struggles to light. By choosing to de-emphasis the whodunnit aspect of the crime, Port of Call is able to embrace the “why” instead and give a much needed spin to the usual crime mystery format.

In many ways, Port of Call doesn’t seem to care about the crime at all. Details of it are quickly dispensed to the audience through exposition, and the only times the grisly act is shown are in brief albeit horrifying snippets. There was never a climatic or “aha!” moment where a key piece of evidence or important witness is suddenly discovered that solves the mystery. The film chooses to focus its spotlight squarely on what events brought the characters to this dramatic and fatal point rather than how it was executed. Some might find the non-linear storytelling and depressing backstories to be frustrating, especially if they expect a direct and standard crime story. I would argue, however, that the slowburning, oppressive tone of the story is what gives it added depth.

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One of the standout aspects of Port of Call is its treatment of the characters as fleshed out people with hopes and aspirations. Kai Mui is a depressed teenager forced to move from her hometown in Mainland China to Hong Kong and never quite develops a firm grasp on her new life. Her hopeless descent into prostitution comes across as a logical and believable solution to not only her but also the audience watching. Port of Call similarly paints Ding as a complex character that is more than just a two-dimensional villain. Ding is a marginalized and lonely individual who could have even been Kai Mui’s kindred spirit in another lifetime. Interestingly enough, Chong who is supposedly the lead character is less developed than the others. Instead of being fully integrated into the central story, he acts more like a narrator for the audience while moving on the periphery.

What made this film truly resonate were the acting performances of the three leads. Newcomers Jessie Li and Michael Ning, playing Kai Mui and Ding, respectively, absolutely shone in their debut movie roles. Jessie Li played Kai Mui with the right amount of vulnerability and desperation that made it difficult to not sympathize with her, even as she’s intentionally ruining her own life. Michael Ning’s nuanced performance as Ding simultaneously makes you fear and feel for him as the dice never quite rolls the right way for him. But make no mistake, Ding is a monster. Ning did well to convey that through the eerie calmness in how he detailed the dismemberment process. Even if you close your eyes during the horrifying and bloody flashback, his deadpan monologue is enough to make you wince.

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A big deal was made about Aaron Kwok “uglifying” himself for this role, as it usually is with top stars. While I appreciated the commitment to making Chong look as haggard and grizzled as possible, I don’t know if it was completely necessary as it didn’t add much to the character. His acting certainly ranged from good to great in this film, but I never quite understood his character the way I did with the other two. Perhaps because Li and Ning were so phenomenal in their roles that Kwok was just consistently outshone by his co-stars. One minor complaint I do have is that I wish the three of them shared more screentime together since everyone’s scenes were mostly of them alone. I understand why that was unfeasible, but it would have been great.

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Port of Call is not a fun movie, and might even give you nightmares for a few nights. It is, however, intriguingly filmed and impeccably acted. Under the careful guidance of famed cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, it even veers into the arthouse direction that is atypical of Hong Kong crime movies. The crime within it is awful, but the characters prove that maybe they themselves aren’t. Once you understand what Port of Call is trying to not be, then you can see what it actually is: an philosophical examination of life and the lonely souls that inhabit it.

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This & That:

  • This film is based on a real crime case in 2008 of a murdered and dismembered 16-year-old prostitute girl found in Hong Kong.
  • Port of Call was the closing film of the 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival.
  • Aaron Kwok purposely grew a mustache and beard that were dyed grey along with his hair to better portray the role of a haggard police detective.
  • Michael Ning initially turned down the role of the murderous Ding Chi Chung multiple times because he was wary that his stage acting background would prevent him from acting naturally in front of a camera. He later accepted the role when the director agreed to let him rehearse scenes before filming on camera.
  • Port of Call was nominated for 9 awards at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards. Michael Ning won the award for Best Supporting Actor.
  • The film received 12 nominations at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards and won 7. The acting categories were swept(!) by four of the film’s actors: Aaron Kwok (Best Leading Actor), Jessie Li (Best Leading Actress), Michael Ning (Best Supporting Actor & Best New Performer), and Elaine Jin (Best Supporting Actress).
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