Film Review: Elisa’s Day (2020)

Elisa’s Day.

Shown at London East Asia Film Festival

Hong Kong, the present day. Officer Fai is taking a fishing boat with a colleague to Tuen Man. We flash back to 1996. Naïve but pretty teenager is attached to her young boyfriend. But when she becomes pregnant, she keeps the baby instead of having an abortion. When things become financially difficult, the father gets involved with triads, and commits a crime so terrible he is forced to escape to Thailand.

Shown as part of the festival’s Hong Kong strand, the film is more a social-realist drama than an action film. It’s one that roots the police officer as the moral center of the film, but he acts in ways that are less than perfect. At the same time, he acts as a father figure to Elisa and her young daughter. First-time director Alan Fung tries to show how tragic events can re-occur if society does not intervene. If parents cannot raise children, then others must do what they can to make sure that the mistakes of past generations do not re-occur. So, when Fai’s associate wants to arrest the husband, he prevents it because he doesn’t want to break up the family and see the child become orphaned.

Shooting in grey, largely avoiding any sense of style, the film feels very cold and flat. Unfortunately, it’s not helped by a very plodding soundtrack that doesn’t do anything for the film’s overall tone. The film’s structure is unnecessarily complicated from being told over 20 years and means that the characters age unconvincingly. More problematic is the treatment of the supposed main character Elisa. Seemingly in love with her daughter, she inexplicably goes from an innocent teen to a cold-hearted prostitute in a couple of years. This change would be believable if the director had given the girl a solid sense of personality to work with, but she’s an almost one-dimensional female figure, little more than cliché. The father is not much better fleshed out. Does he really love the girl, or is he just hanging around because he feels he has to? If he has a sense of love for the mother of his child, it never came through.

There are some things I liked about the film. When the girl is due to meet her partner, Officer Fai tracks her down to a cinema (where she goes to meet men for sex). It’s there, in the film’s foyer, that he meets the kindly Aunt Bo. We’re in the nineties, so the cinema has posters for the Truman Show and Goodwill Hunting. Seeing Aunt Bo playing with the little girl reminds him that she used to look after him. Calling her mom, we realise that the cop was abandoned by his own parents. His interest in the teenaged girl stems from wanting to do everything he can to make sure that the child is not left to the mercies of the streets, as he was.

But as we see in the tragic events of the second half, his power can only go so far in protecting them from what seems like inevitability of fate. Overall, the film is slow, plodding and often uninspired. In the right hands, it could have been very powerful, but its handling is too dull to fully engross us in the lives of the characters.

In Cantonese, with English subtitles