Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema
t.l. Segno di vita
送院途中 (Song Yuen To Chung)
Hong Kong, 2023, 98’, Cantonese
Directed by: Cheuk Wan-chi
Screenplay: Cheuk Wan-chi
Photography (color): Meteor Cheung
Editing: William Chang, Lai Kwun-tung
Production Design: Leung Tsz-yin, Chau Sai-hung
Music: Peter Kam
Producer: Jacqueline Liu
Cast: Louis Koo (Ma Chi-yip), Yau Hawk-sau (Wong Wai), Ariel So (Bonnie), Angela Yuen (Miffy), Poon Chan-leung (Mad Monk), Tommy Chu (Shek Sir), Bowie Lam (Gordon), Jo Koo (Chiropractor)
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
It’s no secret that Hong Kong is seeing an ongoing emigration wave. 2022 saw 113,000 residents move out of the city, marking the largest percentage decline in the city’s population ever on record. For the past two years, farewell dinners and teary airport goodbyes became a common occurrence for many Hongkongers, including myself. But for every family that manages to strike a new start on foreign soil, there are many more who must remain for a myriad of reasons. Tackling the emigration wave as directly as a commercial Hong Kong film can these days, Cheuk Wan-chi’s Vital Sign effectively captures the current mood of the city and offers comfort for those who remain, as well as those abroad who are struggling with their yearning for home.
Setting the emigration issue aside, Vital Sign is also an engaging examination of Hong Kong’s civil service culture. In Hong Kong, civil service is considered an “iron rice bowl” that essentially guarantees lifelong employment without the pressure of private sector work. The system rewards those who play by protocol, take the least risk, and impress the right people. However, the film’s protagonist, veteran ambulanceman Ma Chi-yip (Louis Koo), is not a man who has benefitted from the system. While his colleagues have all been promoted to desk jobs, Chi-yip is still stuck on front-line work because of his aversion to playing the bureaucratic game.
On the polar opposite is Wong Wai (Yau Hawk-sau), a young go-getter who is moving so fast up the bureaucratic ladder that he earned the nickname “Speedy Legend.” Front-line ambulance work is merely a stepping stone to a high-level office job for Wai, whose every act seems calculated to get him letters of appreciation and commendations that will impress his bosses. Chi-yip and Wai first clash when they are assigned to the same ambulance, but Wai eventually develops a respect for the street-wise Chi-yip and front-line work. Of course, it all cumulates in a climactic disaster sequence where the characters work together to save the day.
Though Vital Sign is excellent as a compelling film about the daily lives of ambulancemen, Hong Kong audiences will likely connect more with the emigration issue that looms large over the film. At the urging of his in-laws, the widowed Chi-yip is desperate to take his daughter to Canada, even if it means that he is no longer being able to work as an ambulanceman. Wai’s budding romance with Chi-yip’s foul-mouthed nurse sister-in-law Miffy (a peppy Angela Yuen) leads to a heartfelt minibus-set discussion about staying in the city and a gorgeous montage of nighttime Hong Kong. Cheuk acknowledges that Hong Kong in its current state is far from perfect, and that emigration is a sensible solution for many to escape its problems. However, the film is also an act of empathy for those who cannot leave. Cheuk leaves a bit of room for debate about Chi-yip’s fate in the end, but one thing that is beyond doubt by the close of the film is Cheuk’s affection for her city. By far her most mature directorial effort yet, Cheuk’s love letter to Hong Kong is one of the best local films of the year.
Cheuk Wan-chi started her career at the age of 13 as a radio host, which gave her the chance to write radio plays and newspaper columns. In 2001, her screenplay for Merry Go Round won Best Screenplay at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. After co-writing 20 30 40 and Exodus for Sylvia Chang and Pang Ho-cheung, respectively, she made her feature directorial debut in 2013 with Kick Ass Girls. One of the most popular writers in Hong Kong, Cheuk also does stand-up comedy shows and theatre plays. Vital Sign is her third feature directorial effort.
2013 – Kick Ass Girls
2014 – Temporary Family
2023 – Vital Sign