Before bird flu became the worldwide pandemic threat du jour, we had SARS. It seems a distant memory, those days in 2003 when the disease shut down major cities and threatened to do much worse now seeming so far behind us. For those of us Stateside, SARS was little more than a blip, a headline grabber that always stayed in the vagueness of Over There and Somewhere Else. Which is why the import of a movie like "City of SARS" is quite welcome: it delivers to us a firsthand account from a time and place where dealing with the epidemic was a matter for the vague-free world of Everyday Living, Right Here.
The film, curiously, is an anthology, tying together three wildly separate stories, with director Steve Cheng doing his best to hold it all together. I say "curiously" because the first story is solid enough - and, more importantly, central enough to the heart of the film, thanks to the most effective in its "front lines" approach to the subject - that with a little polish, it could have been fleshed out into its own full-length movie. In fact, it should have; the other two stories are fine, sure, but this first one has the best characters, the sharpest presentation, and the most impact.
In this story, we witness the unfolding of the epidemic from its onset, all within the confines of a hospital that becomes overloaded with cases. It plays like a disaster movie, with the audience knowing in advance the danger to come; we watch for the signs, and cringe whenever someone shows a slight cough or complains about a fever. As the drama escalates and the hospital staff are quarantined, we get a human face on a tragedy that's known mainly by statistics.
Some of it is predictable and a bit repetitive, such as the doubts that pop up in both a doctor (Patrick Tam) and then a nurse (Kristy Yeung), both of whom at one point swear to resign. It's a bit overplayed, and a goofy wrap-up (in which one character declares to a news crew how she stuck it out because that's what good people do) pushes the issue a bit too ham-fistedly, but it still works. Smaller moments, like a bittersweet meeting between the nurse and her parents (which must be made by standing on opposite sides of a park and phoning each other, to avoid possible contamination), are handled more delicately, and as such, they become quite touching. We also get cold views of patients being ignored due to both overload and heartless doctoring, which underline the heartbreak of the whole episode.
The story probably could (should) have evolved into a longer, highly effective medical drama, but the movie instead decides to turn its gaze to Li (Serena Po), a quiet young woman who is quarantined along with the rest of her apartment building for ten days - a timeframe that will include her birthday. Her loser of a boyfriend seems not to care at all, but ah, there's a handsome, caring chap (Edwin Siu) who wants to make her smile again.
This middle segment, then, becomes a rather broad romance, complete with a generic, ultra-sappy Chinese pop love song and happy-sad-happy finale tossed in out of obligation. Po and Siu have a nice chemistry going, but the overall story falls a bit too flat.
Where this episode does work is in the smaller touches. There's a great opening bit in which all of Li's coworkers barely hide their panic over her presence (them knowing what she obviously does not), and try their best to be polite while following her every step with a spray of disinfectant. Later, we see a neighbor begin to go slightly mad at the idea of quarantine (without TV!), while others complain about problems such as lousy food and too much boredom. It's here we get a hint at life during such a time, and it's very engaging. We only have to sit through a mediocre (if well-played) romance to get to it.
The final part of this trilogy switches gears yet again, this time delivering some rather dark comedy that misses its mark about as often as it hits it, although we do get Eric Tsang as a saving grace. His bombastic performance connects where the material does not - the script seems to be directionless, but Tsang has such a handle on how to laugh at such an unfunny situation that it ultimately works well enough.
Tsang plays Hung, a loudmouthed theater owner, restaurateur, and all-around tycoon whose business has slowly been going down the drain. After all, who wants to head out for dinner and a movie when simply mingling with the public might kill you? Facing bankruptcy, Hung becomes convinced the best way out is through suicide. Following several misguided/aborted attempts, perhaps he should try to contract SARS, make the news, and die a media darling.
The comedy is all over the place, and it's a bit of a meandering jumble, but there are enough big laughs here to get by. And, of course, there are plenty of those smaller scenes that provide more insight into life during an epidemic. Yes, the disease took lives, but it also threatened to ruin an economy. Once again, we see the effects of the disease from the ground level, and it's fascinating stuff.
What we're left with, then, is a series of good, sometimes even great, moments mixed in with fairly average, undercooked storytelling. Cheng doesn't hold things together as well as he should, and it's up to his cast to make it all click. Thankfully, they're successful where it counts, and these three tales (plus an interesting, if over-the-top, ominous prologue and a limp, optimistic epilogue) offer up a snapshot of an important moment in time, taken from a place where it counts most.
The disc reviewed here is a Hong Kong release from Kam & Ronson that has been encoded for All Region play. There is also a Region 1 disc that has been released in the U.S. by Tai Seng; this is not that disc, although that disc does look to be essentially a port of this release.
A bit soft and muted (most likely due to unimpressive film stock) but otherwise just fine, the only main complaint with this disc is that the original widescreen (1.85:1) image has not been given anamorphic enhancement, which is always worth a grumble.
Both the original Cantonese soundtrack and its Mandarin dub are offered in Dolby 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo. The 5.1 tracks of both languages are full and rich, although not overplayed, while the 2.0 tracks come across as rather tinny and unimpressive. The difference is quite noticeable. Optional subtitles are given in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese.
Just a trailer, which is also a flat letterbox transfer with all four soundtrack choices (although no subtitles are available).
When it works, "City of SARS" is a compelling work; when it doesn't work, it's little more than an average soap opera. It's enough of a fifty-fifty split for me to say that overall, I like the film, but not enough for me to go beyond a Rent It recommendation.