Big Blue Lake: the film poster

A view of Ho Chung Village

The Dark Knight: Batman over Hong Kong

Infernal Affairs: Law and Chan confront each other on the rooftop overlooking Victoria Bay.

Big Blue Lake: the blue sky of Ho Chung village.

The soft and gentle waves of the lake.

Cheung Lai-yee returns to Ho Chung village.

Alienated urbanity symbolized by the facade of the anonymous theatre hall.

The cluttered and suffocating space of
Lai-yee’s apartment.

Lam Chun under the sunlight.

Lai-yee and Chun climb the mountains of Ho Chung village.



Hong Kong’s liminal spaces:
unveiling nature and identity
in Tsang Tsui-shan’s
Big Blue Lake

by Winnie L. M. Yee

Big Blue Lake (2011) adapts the conventions of romance and the family saga to tell the story of the return of a rebellious daughter who regrets her irresponsible departure ten years earlier. After her homecoming, Cheung Lai-yee finds herself and those around her trapped biographically, personally, and professionally, an entrapment that manifests itself as a confinement of time and space. The motif of liminal space is used to draw attention to issues of personal and collective identity. Central to this motif are reflections on the passing of the time and the swift transformation of the landscape of Hong Kong. In this respect, the movie belongs to the tradition of critical social commentary that has characterized Hong Kong’s independent cinema.

While most international audiences are familiar with the martial arts movies of Jackie Chan and Jet Lee, the gangster films of Alex Lau and Johnnie To, and the postmodernist works of Wong Kar-wai, they remain largely unaware of Hong Kong’s independent films, which combine elements of popular culture and social critique. Jessey Tsui-shan Tsang’s Big Blue Lake is such a film—one that highlights social problems and provides a reflection of the current culture. In part, the film offers an investigation of different forms of identity, personal and collective. The protagonists’ narratives are inextricably intertwined with the past—their own, their families’, even Hong Kong’s. The film also probes how an urban identity is forged and how it affects one’s relationship with nature. The “in-between” space of Ho Chung village is a setting that reveals alternative readings of one’s self and culture. Challenging the domination of the urban landscape in Hong Kong cinema, the film shifts its focus to landscapes that have been undervalued and underrepresented. Its investigations rely on the representation of the liminal space—the in-betweenness—embodied in the life of the protagonists, the locale of Ho Chung village, and in the filmic text as product of culture. The potentialities of liminal space are explored. Its restrictions and confinements illuminate possible reimaginings of one’s identity.

The Big Blue Lake portrays the personal quests of the two main characters, Lai-yee and Lam Chun. Both are trapped in Ho Chung—the village where they grew up—at critical moments of their lives. As the narrative progresses, the personal and the collective become increasingly intertwined. Ho Chung village is a potential space, which invites continuing dialogues between the city and the country, the present and the past, the personal and the collective. It is a place where the scourge of urbanization and the breakdown of families can be negotiated and reconciled. The suggestion of liminal space is established in three ways:

  • technically, through the creative use of sound, which introduces a dialogue between the visual and the acoustic;
  • textually, through the depiction of the village locales where negotiations can be imagined; and
  • metatextually, through the location of the film in the space between the mainstream and the independent scene.

Liminal filmic text:
hallucinating the urban and rural

At the metatextual level, Big Blue Lake mediates between the mainstream and the independent scene, offering a critique of the dominant representations of Hong Kong cinema. One of the prominent features of this cinema is its preoccupation with urban space and, particularly, with the many changes that eventually transformed fishing villages into vast cities. Many scholars and viewers consider Hong Kong films excellent examples of “urban cinema.” That is, the films represent not only urban spaces but also a distinctly urban epistemology through their style and organization. This strong urban sensitivity in cinema dates back to the 1980s,[1] [open endnotes in new window] when New Wave Hong Kong filmmakers such as Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, and Patrick Tam produced works that explored the conditions of Hong Kong from a new perspective. P K Leung maintains that Hong Kong’s urban cinema brings into sharp focus many of the cultural contradictions of Hong Kong society—generational conflicts, cultural differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China, among others. Its recurrent trope—the perpetually changing skyline of Hong Kong—indicates its interest in the “exploration of the new urban environment and the change of attitudes towards values, ethics, customs, and lifestyle” (384). The cityscape itself has become a character in these films. Hong Kong is repeatedly portrayed as an example of a modern global metropolis, not only in local films but in Hollywood productions such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and Alex Mark and Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs trilogy. The effect of this focus on urban Hong Kong, however, is to render any alternative formulation of Hong Kong identity invisible. The ability to read/understand Hong Kong differently is urgently required, but how will this alternative emerge? Who will take the risk of jeopardizing the box office?

By situating Big Blue Lake in a rural setting and drawing attention to the withering of nature, Tsang has assumed the task of deconstructing the urban cliché. Tsang,[2] who received the Best New Director award at the 31st Hong Kong Film Awards and the New Talent Award at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (2011), has proven herself to be capable of negotiating the commercial and the independent scene in order to provide a thoughtful analysis of Hong Kong. Focusing on the inhabitants of Ho Chung village in the New Territories[3], Big Blue Lake challenges Hong Kong’s urban focus. Through the simple story of Lai-yee and her childhood memories of the village, Big Blue Lake suggests that the shift from the urban to the rural world does not necessarily romanticize the natural landscape, uphold the binary opposition between the city and the country, or condemn the cityscape out of hand. Rather, the return—the idea of going home—suggests a turning or shifting of perspectives and positions in relation to things and places. The film depicts a physical space that allows room for reflection on one’s past and future, on one’s urban and pre-urban relationship with the environment, and, hence, on the identity of Hong Kong. The space is key: means can be constructed only in spaces that are actively lived and felt. In Big Blue Lake, nature is an important element that shapes our memories and experiences, as well as the way we understand our community as a whole.

Featured at international film festivals (including the 30th Vancouver International Film Festival, the 8th Asian Film Festival, and the 22nd Stockholm International Film Festival), Big Blue Lake critiques the commercial film industry’s narrow focus on Hong Kong’s urban identity. The alternative offered by Big Blue Lake represents a poetic departure, which allows for connection and reflection and highlights the interrelationship of nature and culture. It should be noted that the film would not have been made without generous government subsidies, which can be considered an unique feature of Hong Kong independent cinema. The flourishing of Hong Kong’s independent cinema in the 1990s was largely connected to the establishment of Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC), which boosted its development. In 1995, the Urban Council (rechristened the Leisure and Cultural Service Department in 2000) “collaborated with [Hong Kong] Arts Centre to launch the Hong Kong Independent Short Films and Video Awards (IFVA), an annual event” (Cheung 23), which directly contributed to the revival of independent cinema the 1990s. Benefited from various external subsidies, Big Blue Lake received support from IFVA for its production, its opening gala, and its distribution by Golden Scene Co. Ltd. By providing editing facilities, accounting services, and funding, IFVA allow filmmakers to gain commercial advantages (e.g., the use of professional actors and actresses for the leading roles) while maintaining their critical stance. Unique to Hong Kong independent cinema are the continuous support and opportunities offered by the competitions and festivals subsidized by government related funding, and the self-reflexivity of the independent filmmakers, Tsang included, in criticizing social problems as well as the film industry’s focus of the urban.

A strong sense of self-reflection characterizes Big Blue Lake. This self-reflection is strengthened by the film’s visual portrayal of the opposition between urban and rural, stagnation and movement. Unlike films that use nature as backdrop (e.g., Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By [1988] or Derek Yee’s The Truth about Jane and Sam [1999]), Big Blue Lake refuses to make easy distinctions between the events and their setting. Big Blue Lake outlines contradictions between urban and rural by representing an inevitable lack and lag of the urban in the film. This kind of lack and lag does not have much to do with marginalizating nature; rather, it is symptomatic of the excesses that characterize Hong Kong’s unstable identity.

At the outset, the film uses contemporary symbols and movements to suggest an unreflective urban identity. Rather than reiterating conventional images of skyscrapers, automobiles, billboards, and technology, the film indicates urbanity by cold walls and the glassy façade of an anonymous theatre hall. There is an absence of significant landmarks often used to represent the topography of Britain, Hong Kong, or even Shenzhen. Instead we see a cramped apartment against a background of traffic. Urban spaces are evoked by these minimal means not because they are insignificant but because the urban identity of Hong Kong is so established that it does not need to be trumpeted by big billboards.

At first glance, this “minimal” presentation of urbanity suggests its marginality and insignificance. Obviously, the “absence” of urbanity (or its minimal representation) is a tactical move in Big Blue Lake. It suggests that our cognition of urbanity is so omnipresent and obvious that it needs no prompting. By not showing the conventional symbols of urban life, the film challenges our uncritical acceptance of Hong Kong’s urban identity reflected in its cinema. This identity is so overwhelming that any “showing” is redundant. The film also challenges the urban identity of Hong Kong that has characterized the New Wave by highlighting the stark contrast between excess and minimalism. The minimalism evoked in Big Blue Lake does not signify marginality; instead, it is a response to the dominant logic of representation in late capitalism. Rather than maintaining contact with the real, our representational structures have become empty symbols. Deprived of substance, we, the audience, rush to fill the gap. Now urban identity can be rendered by minimal images because its meaning is never challenged.

Another way that the film highlights distinctions between urban and rural is its focus on movement (the movement of vehicles conveyed by long tracking shots at the beginning of the film is a striking example). Lai-yee’s progress is followed as she travels on a shuttle bus and in taxis, inviting the audience to share her experience of the changing terrain and her re-entry into a world that is no longer familiar. The movement underscores the journeys of the main characters and also the transformation that the village and the larger community must undergo. It is also hinted that an urban eye can freshly appreciates the essence of nature and be inspired to develop a different mode of negotiating life.

It seems that such a minimal presentation of the city (and its implicit message) is only possible in independent films such as Big Blue Lake, which do not rely on the commercial draw of Hong Kong’s urban image. The representation of nature in Big Blue Lake provides a different perspective on Hong Kong’s identity, one that is neither simple nor simplified. After the rapid movement of the opening, the city is evoked by scenes in a café and in a retail shop where Lai-yee poses as a customer in order to perform a surreptitious inspection. In the city, the characters focus on human problems such as cheating (Lam Chun’s flirtation with two women), dishonesty (the casual cruelty of the staff at the café towards the visually impaired), selfishness (Lam and Lai-yee’s fight over a pair of sunglasses). The alternative Hong Kong of the village, in contrast, is presented as amicable, static, and serene. The lake, the hills, and the meadows are presented using static camera shots and long takes to instill a sense of quietness and awe. In the sections presenting village life, rather than the successive images of a journey, the audience is invited to contemplate nature’s own rhythms. The scenes that are devoted to the protagonists’ observation of nature also offer a space for exploration. Nature is not romanticized; it requires rational negotiation. It is not a spectacle, a refuge, or an enemy, but a space that allows the protagonists to reconcile their identities with the past. Nature is continuously shaped and reshaped by humans and non-humans. Many scenes in Big Blue Lake depict human immersion in nature and suggest deep connections between nature and our identity. Again this emphasis on nature suggests that the film offers an alternative space where a different reading of Hong Kong is possible.

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