Aberdeen is a family drama set in modern day Hong Kong but it could really represent any day and any place and any family. The film is effortless in its depictions of three generations living together, apart and sometimes both in a diaspora of values, culture and complicated histories both for the family and for the history of a place itself.
Hong Kong staple Pang Ho-Cheung comes into his own as a master with Aberdeen. Here is a film so layered and filled with drama and yet there is almost no mention of their back-story and not a trace of melodrama to be found. Through a profound lens Aberdeen moves lyrically between each family member; a grand-father, a son, a father, a brother and their significant others and off-spring. Each character is fully fleshed out with no exposition, we learn to know them, to like them and understand them yet never judge them.
One example of this brilliance stems from an infidelity – a plot point rehashed in film since its acceptable conception. In Aberdeen, Cheung ensures this part of the narrative is a pot boiler, the mistress gets closer to the wife, and the husband is at some risk of being found out (perhaps she already knows). In the end, the films handling of this tired subject is what makes Aberdeen stand out as a masterwork of beautiful expressive and yet painfully realistic storytelling. The man speaks to his mistress, he tells her on his way home to the district in Hong Kong known as Aberdeen he passes a traffic sign to a road that reads ‘all locations’. We can choose at any point in our lives to take any path we want, he simply states that he has resigned himself to being a husband and she is young and can still choose her path; he is not happy nor unhappy about the fact, but in a scene of strange selflessness he lets his mistress go. Words barely do this scene justice, it comes after an equally gentle scene between him and his wife but it is not a moment of sudden realization nor recrimination (of himself or others), their conversation does not feel like it spawned his decision at all.
The infidelity point is but one tiny component of a film that touches on the many contradictions and socio-political elements of modern day Hong Kong. As heavy as that sounds, it is in fact the opposite.
This sort of narrative complexity can be messy but in the hands of Cheung, the entire film is floating on air, utterly assured of where and when it will land. Other scenes proliferate the film that both speak to the individual characters, to the family unit and to the location of Aberdeen itself where they all reside – one scene is a freak accident where-upon an un-triggered bomb from the war is accidently dug up; there it sits, a literal bombshell waiting to go off – for what this speaks volumes to in terms of place and characters may sound alarming and quite fantastical, but it is surprisingly subtle. This is true of another scene involving a whale.
The stunning cinematography, some of the best I have seen in years, informs us of the locales of Aberdeen, the upper-middle class malaise and the headspaces of each protagonist. Some of the key scenes of the film are utterly generic, perhaps even blasé spaces that are brought to brilliant life in color and passion.
Although these scenes are not quite fantasy, the film invokes a few utterly charming and jaw-dropping dream sequences, from a cardboard Hong Kong, a giant Godzilla-like lizard man, a crazy ghost dinner scene and many more – in short Cheung injects the film with his patented brand of dark-comedy lunacy.
Each moment is not wasted and the film breezes along on its perfect standard running time. This Altman/Paul Thomas Anderson’esque mosaic of characters and themes are perfectly covered; there is no stone unturned in this moment of family, the film drops us in then picks us up with little fan-fare. Yet, the lessons learnt, the emotions felt and the unforgettable moments both in images and narrative are enough for a years’ worth of film viewing.
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton on Twitter here: @Kwenton