Coming from a journalism and communications background at University, director Hing Weng Eric Tsang has cleverly been using Hong Kong Fresh Wave Award as a film school, participating for several years in different sections and specialties. We met him in 2017, at Five Flavours Film Festival in the role of cinematographer for the Short Film “Liu Yang River”. This strategic learning path is certainly paying off now as his movies are getting more and more polished. After winning in 2018 the Fresh Wave Award cash prize for his short film “The Umbrella” Tsang went on to write, direct and edit “A Thousand Sails”, his first film outside the Fresh Wave’s comfort zone, that is premiering now at the Sundance Film Festival.
On a rocky boat from the islands, an old lady (Leong Cheok-mei) is on a mission. Her name is Ren and she is going to the big city on behalf of Mrs. Wah (Pang Mei Sheung), a friend who cannot move. Her duty is to visit Mrs. Wah’s son, Chung (Chow Po-chung), who runs a business in the city, and give him a gift of money and a basket of Hakka Cha Kwo (steamed rice cakes) from his mum.
Expecting to find Chung as a well-off businessman, Ren is shocked to discovered a rather contrasting reality. The man lives in a cramped room in a ripped flat, sharing his space with big boxes of unsold goods. He just didn’t have the guts to tell his mum about his struggle and now he is asking Ren to keep the secret for herself. Once at home, Ren is troubled about what to do and confesses the little secret and her doubts to the picture of her late husband, but in the meantime, a small bond based on complicity and compassion starts to sprout and connect those two lonely souls.
Through a simple and delicate story, “A Thousand Sails” builds up a melancholic mood made of a complex mix of elements; a web of little secrets and white lies, all dictated by love, loneliness, fear of not meeting expectations and shame. Like in a droplet of a well-blended perfume, the movie’s feelings are distinct and recognisable, and yet their sum elicits a strong sense of longing, the sadness of lost connections and the timid joy for new ones.
The rendering of these feelings is ingeniously achieved through a sequence of beautiful shots, and the skillful use of a static camera. The ability in framing and composing is without a doubt one of Tsang’s greatest talents. Very much like in a Victorian Benjamin Pollok’s paper theatre, many layers of scenery and curtains enrich the perspective and the depth of field. Some of the set ups are rather complex and articulated; in an initial scene, set in a corridor, spaces and fields come to life in a musical tempo; doors open, characters enter and swap places like in a dance. And more, in the beautiful final scene multiple layers – mountains, village, sea, street, shopfront – form a tunnel of vision going from the bright distant nature up to a dark proscenium where Mrs. Wah sits still and Ren, moving from layer to layer, eventually takes her physical place on the set, hinting also to a more symbolic place-swap in her rapport with Chung.
Ren is often framed in an indirect or oblique way, through a window or a reflection. In a bizarre conversation with Chung, she is only seen in a distant mirror, making Chung looking like he is talking with the ghost of his own conscience. She is in fact a crossover character, a diagonal connection, an odd number 3. Her femininity is subtle and emotional, underlined by the also very feminine art direction of Mirmanda Cheung and Yue Fung Kit.
This is very mature filmmaking that leaves us wanting for more.