No. 7 Cherry Lane at Venezia 76: an acid-dipped love letter
The swirling anachronicity of Hong Kong has rarely been evoked in such luminous, ecstatic tones as with Yonfan’s No. 7 Cherry Lane. Evoking the easygoing ennui of Wong Kar-Wei with an acid-dipped eastern animation style, it’s beautiful and completely baffling – an audio-visual experience combining past, present and future with nipple-licking cats.
Our protagonist, a young, attractive HKU student named Ziming (voiced by Alex Lam), is hired by Mrs Yu (Sylvia Chang) to teach her 18-year-old daughter Meiling (Zhao Wei) English. When the film opens, Ziming is showering naked with his tennis partner, and we’re invited to gawk at the steamy spectacle of the two being watched by a peeping Tom in the corner. The vaguely homoerotic tone continues throughout, although at times it seems more like the female gaze takes over.
Soaring through a textured, vibrant animated Hong Kong that looks overgrown with mint green jungle, Zhang Gang’s animation situates the city both in a lush Colonial past and a post-apocalyptic future. Giant, looming Pan-Am jets that glide over the brutalist tower blocks like industrial clouds cast shadows over multicoloured signs decked in Chinese characters. It’s a landscape that seamlessly integrates humanity and nature; a dream landscape of endless possibility that’s rooted in fantasy but has enough residual grip on reality to remain within reach.
The tale Yonfan spins is, it has to be said, complicated, but the gist of the piece is a love triangle between Ziming, Mrs Yu, and Meiling. Mrs Yu represents the draw of a lavish imperial past: sporting beautiful qipaos and drifting through crumbling colonial architecture, she’s reminiscent of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. But the draw of modernism also tempts Ziming in the form of 18-year-old Meiling. She engages in anti-Colonial protests, actively fighting to destroy the past – to move forward into a new age speckled with Maoist red books. Ziming – the present – is stuck between these competing influences and their fluctuating magnetism. Do we progress or regress into the future?
Hong Kong is the nexus for so many cultures and philosophies. It was a prized outpost of colonialism, outlasting the Cultural Revolution and only becoming independent in 1997. Currently, we’re seeing it split – violently – over the increasing control of China which will only continue to intensify until 2046 when it will come fully under that country’s rule. An unsteady collision of East and West, Hong Kong embodies the fundamental aesthetic, philosophical, and political conflicts of the world stage. Yonfan’s anachronisms – the polar opposites of his characters, the combination of 2D and 3D animation, hand-drawn and computer-generated, rough and smooth – embody and pay tribute to the diversity and glorious chaos of his city. Sexual preferences, genders, and partners switch fluidly without care for social constraints or norms.
That very chaos is part of what made the Hong Kong Golden Age in the 90’s so tantalising to International viewers. It was as if Hollywood had been genetically spliced into the more austere, art-house Asian cinema that had been trickling into Europe up until that point. Ziming repeatedly visits the cinema with Ms Yu, where they watch Simone Signoret films which chime wonderfully with their current situation – older women falling in love with younger men. The black and white Western films, screened in great palatial rooms sculpted during British rule, further accentuate the draw of the luxuriant past. A sign informs us that the theatre will soon be screening The Graduate – something a lot more modern, cynical, and critical awaits in the future.
Punctuating the drama are constant flashes of a subconscious dream-world, although Yonfan rarely (if ever) demarcates when we’re slipping into a deep slumber. Just like the barrier from East to West and from past to future, the line between wake and sleep is increasingly blurred as No.7 Cherry Lane descends to an ecstatically psychedelic trip sequence where all our major characters reunite for a sexy, weird, satisfying moment of cathartic clarity.
More confusing, perhaps, are Yonfan’s attempts at political strokes. Meiling participates in pro-Mao, anti-British protests in a way that’s portrayed as ‘the future’ (it is 1967), whilst her mother looks on wryly having been in a ‘real revolution’ many years back when she lived in Taiwan – I presume the White Terror of the 50’s. No. 7 Cherry Lane has an inexplicable sense of relevance about it, but it’s hard to really say what could possibly be contemporary when thousands of people are currently taking to the streets to protest Chinese rule, many waving British flags. Is it simply that things move in cycles – that there will always be something to protest? Or is there an implicit pro-China agenda to the film that isn’t quite coming through to the surface? Either way, it’s probably best to ignore the political direction Yonfan moves in – it’s unclear at best, and there’s enough going on in other departments to satisfy. In any case, the moment is ruined when a Chinese pop-rap song plays over the top of a violent protest in such a flagrant violation of tone and respectability that you jump in your seat.
Also hit and miss is the animation style. The combination of textured, hand-drawn animation and smooth, pristine CG work can be a little jarring – drawing attention to the flaws in both mediums (the scrappy, unrealistic feel of the hand-draw and the lifelessness of CG). In a choice that will surely be hit or miss for audiences, too, the characters of No. 7 Cherry Lane – whether they be human or animal – move as if in slow motion, drifting over the landscape in a totally unrealistic way. But all of that’s made up for by the ravishing colouration that Zhang Gang splashes over the landscape. Aquamarine so luminous that it seems to pop from the screen contrasts against beautiful lemon and orange sunsets. An inviting magenta sea stretches out into the distance, whilst staccato pops of neon light up the sky. Even the clothes the characters wear burst with energy – yellow bright enough to make you want to turn away, and deep, sensual reds to get lost in.
These eye-popping, gorgeous tones backlight a wood and concrete sea of buildings in a way that highlights the mystically anachronistic nature of Hong Kong. Likewise, a beautiful, swooning soundtrack that combines classical music with nostalgic Chinese ballads, rap music and electronica pulls from eras and sources that swirl through the city.
A constant, slow-motion Technicolour spray of East and West, past present and future, and lots of weird sex stuff, No. 7 Cherry Lane is one of a kind. Enveloped in cinema, it’s a glorious free fall through the sprawling contradictions of Hong Kong that emerges through thick clouds of cigarette smoke into the most pristine, azure day. It might not make much narrative sense at times, but relax a little and you’ll feel the heartbeat of a city pushing through the silver screen.