Leaving in Sorrow

English Title: Leaving in Sorrow

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Ying e Chi

Director: Vincent Chui

Producer(s): Vincent Chui

Screenplay: Vincent Chui, Patrick Kong

Cinematographer: SK Yip

Art Director: Carmen Cheng

Editor: Kedy Fan

Runtime: 90 minutes

Genre: Drama

Year: 2001

Volume: Chinese


Set in the pre- and post-1997 Hong Kong, the film consists of three strands of non-intersecting stories set in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Beijing. Working in the field of new information technology and leading the carefree life of a womanizer in San Francisco, Ray returns to Hong Kong to visit his father who lives a life of solitude. They pay a visit to a village in Mainland China due to the death of an elderly relative. During this process, Ray finds himself at a crossroads when Hong Kong is drawing closer to China culturally and economically after 1997. The second story is about Reverend Lai and his wife who are inevitably caught up in the heated property market in Hong Kong. The former is in charge of the sale of his church to speculative developers while the latter, a property agent herself, tries to sell her own flat before immigrating to the United States. Their marital relationship strains as they have to be separated from each other because of emigration. The third story narrates a gossip magazine writer Hong’s persistent courtship of his editor Chris. Chris later reveals to him the repressed, traumatic memories of the June Fourth Incident of 1989; it was the time when she developed an unfulfilled romance while studying in Beijing during the political crisis. 


Funded by government financial aids from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC), Vincent Chui’s Leaving in Sorrow is an independent film which belongs to the tradition of realism in Hong Kong cinema. A digital video shot at a low cost, the film contributed to the revival and growth of independent film-making in the late 1990s and the new millennium; it demonstrates how alternative film-making is possible outside the Hong Kong mainstream cinema. While one can trace Chui’s realism back to Hong Kong New Wave film-makers such as Ann Hui, Allen Fong, and Lawrence Ah Mon because of their shared social concern, Leaving in Sorrow is noted by its innovative style associated with Dogme 95. Inspired by the Dogme 95 aesthetics popularized by Danish film-makers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Chui shot the film on location with natural lighting and sound effects. The film also submits itself to the Dogme’s ‘Vows of Chastity’ with its frequent use of handheld camera as well as amateur and improvized acting.

Chui’s insistence on authenticity, however, is not simply a matter of reflectionism. His realistic style is employed to document as well as comment on socio-political changes. The film depicts Hong Kong as a city caught up at a moment of critical reflection. With its focus on the aftermath of the 1997 handover and the subsequent world-wide financial crisis, the film can be regarded as a punctual response to such socio-political transitions. If the Danish film-makers aim to challenge the global hegemony of Hollywood cinema with their Dogme style, Chui’s film seeks to open up a space for independent film-making by defining Hong Kong society through his lens of realism.  

It is the tripartite narrative structure that has allowed the film to portray Hong Kong society as multifaceted and dynamic, but the treatment of the three separate stories is rather uneven. The first story about Ray is explored with less force and depth than the other two strands. Nonetheless, the film as a whole succeeds in addressing issues in connection with home, migration, and globalization by depicting Hong Kong as a space of flows. As the characters exert their floating existences within the local, national and international network, they have to grapple with the significance of self-understanding and cultural memory.  

Ray’s homecoming to Hong Kong and Mainland China has prompted him to reconsider how he should reconnect with his Chinese roots. At the same time, he has to deal with the greater economic and cultural links between China and Hong Kong after the return of sovereignty in 1997. The need for reflection is equally demanding for Pastor Lai and his wife. Whereas Lai realizes how one’s moral conviction is continuously challenged by economic pragmatism, his wife achieves a better self-understanding when she confronts her own sense of vanity in a commercial society. In the third story, both Hong and Chris reveal their buried memories which are almost erased by their mundane involvement in the job at the tabloid magazine. While Hong’s past failed romance is personal, Chris’ inability to forget her memories associated with the June Fourth Incident signifies the collective will to resist amnesia. Delivered by the actress Crystal Lui’s excellent improvized acting and without a script, the final scene in which Chris breaks down in tears in a Beijing back alley closes the film with power and rigor, suggesting the lingering effect of traumatic memories. 

Leaving in Sorrow contributes to the tradition of realism in Hong Kong cinema by manipulating the Dogme style and historicizing the general themes of home and movement in the context of Hong Kong in the post-1997 era. With the use of quick editing and handheld camera, the film captures the ethos of this unstable period of time through a tripartite structure and a fractured style. It goes beyond reflectionism to perceive film as a critical device for social and political commentary.

Author of this review: Esther M.K. Cheung