Bends, the first full-length film from Flora Lau, observes a dreamy Hong Kong through the eyes of a wealthy, middle-aged kept woman Anna (Carina Lau), and her young, blue-collar driver (Chen Kun). Minutes into the film, shortly after Anna sips champagne as the hostess of a dinner party, and declares "look at me, I'm so free" as a testimonial for sending your children to boarding school, her husband and source of income disappears. What's both mysterious and fascinating about the film is that Anna never reports his absence to the police, nor seems worried for him. She knows, it seems, that he has deserted her and that the financial well will soon dry up. Reacting, or non-reacting, with denial, annoyance and bewilderment, Carina Lau plays every moment with relaxed, lived-in assurance.
Meanwhile Fai's wife is pregnant with a second child, just a stone's throw away in Shenzhen, where the one-child per family restriction is bearing down on their impending happiness. He hides her in a dingy apartment as he squirrels away money to pay for a Hong Kong birth. And this is the heart of Bends: class, wealth, and excess in China and Hong Kong--a study that is, at turns, romantic and disarmingly sobering. Lau's vision is guided by the eye of master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and through it, the shabby bustle of Shenzhen looks as stunning as the glittering mass of lush mountains and twinkling lights that back-drop Anna'a apartment in Hong Kong. Visually and thematically, Bends remarkably offers no judgement on which class is the "good" or pure one, nor does she imply that one is inherently happier than the other.
Anna, in fact, is an intensely interesting character beneath a deceptively simple exterior. We don't get to know her much, and she certainly doesn't display the markers of a bad person in need of comeuppance; when her wealth dwindles, we are neither heartbroken nor delighted. Yet she seems genuinely sad and desperate about her declining situation, never having the typical cliched movie moment that teaches her the meaninglessness of money. Money does have meaning, and Fai's case is a great example of that. Anna's panic as she loses her grip on her lifestyle never registers as her being greedy or shallow (though she does prove to be silly more than once, as when she hires a Feng Shui specialist and buys luxurious gold elephant statues as a result of his conspicuously random advice).
Money, consumerism and the currency of power, image and exterior are the tools Bends works with, and from a specifically Chinese point of view. While Fai and his wife must either pay an astronomical fee to give birth in Hong Kong, or an equally outlandish sum to pay the second-child fine to the government, Anna is distraught at the thought of living on more than the average citizen could hope to make in five years. In a particularly vulnerable moment, Anna asks Fai to accompany her to a street market to buy wild turtles for the sole purpose of releasing them back into nature. It's a perfect example of how anything can be bought and sold, and it's an act to which that Anna assigns great meaning (as she does her car, home, gold elephants, and purple Feng Shui-approved garments) while Fai shrugs it off as the frivolous novelty that it is.
Flora Lau presents her socio-political class study as a polished, romantic melodrama, shot through with a wistful sort of maturity. It's a thoughtful, dignified film that feels intimate and strangely distant, voyeuristic yet never sleazy, and stylistically well-developed (thanks, perhaps, to Doyle's lens work). Bends would work well as tourist-friendly escapism viewing, even as it might quietly critique what that implies.