Tuesday, April 15, 2008

At WorldFest/Houston: Magazine Gap Road

As I've written for the Houston Chronicle: There’s something seductively fascinating about the chilly spareness and cryptic allusiveness of writer-director Nicholas Chin’s Magazine Gap Road, a formally precise yet emotionally resonant thriller about going to extremes while escaping the past. This well-crafted Hong Kong import, unspooling Wednesday and Friday at the 2008 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, demands and rewards patience with its unhurried entwining of suspense and sensuality, desperate measures and selfless gestures.

The tile refers to a tony Hong Kong enclave of wealth and privilege where Samantha (Jessey Meng), a strikingly beautiful ex-prostitute, has successfully re-invented herself as the invaluable assistant to the curator of a private museum. Possessing a nimble intelligence and an enigmatic smile, Samantha is at her considerable best while bargaining with collectors to obtain antiquities. (Wipe that smile off your face: She uses charm and persuasion, not tricks of her old trade, to achieve her goals.) Dr. Lee (Richard Ng), her proud mentor, knows everything about her background – and admires her all the more for transcending it. Indeed, there’s a very funny scene where one of Samantha’s former associates threatens to expose her to her boss, and Dr. Lee walks into the room to more or less tell the creep: “Yeah, I know what she was. And I hear she was pretty dang good at it. Now buzz off, punk.”

But all it takes is a frantic phone call from Kate (Ying Qu), another “escort” employed by the same flesh-peddler who once controlled Samantha, to remind our heroine that, as William Faulkner once noted, the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past. Loyal to her friend, to a fault, Samantha helps Kate hide out long enough to kick her drug habit, with a little help from Mao (Elvis Tsui), a disgraced ex-cop who needs a shot at redemption. But when it comes to removing the final impediment to Kate’s happily-ever-aftering, Samantha takes a solo approach to problem-solving. This is a big mistake.

The plot also encompasses a mostly chaste romance between Samantha and Greg (Carl Ng, co-star Richard’s real-life son), the sensitive scion of a rich family, but there’s precious little heat generated during the scenes devoted to this subplot. Truth to tell, there’s rarely a genuinely warm moment throughout the entirely of Magazine Gap Road, a coolly realized drama charged with alternating currents of tragic inevitability and steely defiance. Even so, there’s a teasing hint of repressed passion percolating beneath the surface as Samantha and Mao willfully avoid acknowledging, for as long as possible, the mutual attraction between two damaged souls.

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