REVIEW: The Calling of a Bus Driver (2020)

busdriver_posterYou have to be careful with the English titles with Chinese language films. Take Hong Kong’s The Calling of a Bus Driver (2020), written and directed by Patrick Kong. With a title like that one would expect to see some kind of drama about somebody starting out as a city bus driver, facing all manner of challenges and prejudices along the way. While it is true that the film’s protagonist does take up a job driving buses, it is hardly the story’s key focus. Instead it is a blend of comedy and melodrama about two abandoned lovers getting revenge on their exes. The original Chinese title translates to something like Ah Suo’s Narrative – even though through the whole film Ah Suo is nicknamed Suki. So if you’re craving a dramatic insight into Hong Kong’s public transportation system, akin to Derek Yee’s 2003 minibus drama Lost in Time (another generically weird English title), despite all signals The Calling of a Bus Driver may not be for you.

Suki (Ivana Wong) has spent seven years supporting the chilli sauce business of her boyfriend Chico (Edmond Leung), all the while waiting for him to pop the question. Right when it looks like the business is going to secure a major expansion into mainland China, Suki catches Chico having an affair with the glamorous investor Kiki (Jacky Choi) – and he ultimately marries her instead. Crushed by betrayal, Suki then encounters Manny (Philip Keung) – Kiki’s obsessive ex-husband who has come with a proposal for revenge.

This is an odd little fish of a film. Its writer/director Patrick Kong is known for his relatively silly comedies, and while there are touches of his humour on and off the bulk of the film seems dedicated to a very familiar style of Hong Kong melodrama. The overly earnest acting, the piano-based score, and the frequent maudlin tone are all hallmarks of this classic kind of cheesy drama. There is a long tradition of this kind of romantic drama, and for lovers of the form it is certainly capable enough to pass the time.

Where the film seems particularly odd is in the disjointed way it throws in comedic scenes, and how it twists suddenly in the third act to resemble some vague form of crime thriller. It all makes for a fairly messy film that cannot quite nail down its genre and purpose. There are at least three other, somewhat better, versions of this story to be hold had Kong simply picked a tone and stuck with it.

A few of the performances stand out. Ivana Wong makes for a pleasant and likeable Suki, bringing equal amounts of cheerful pluck and sorrow. The most entertaining member of the cast is Philip Keung, who balances the vengeful Manny between being charmingly rogue-like and worryingly unhinged. He has the strongest gift for comedy here, delivering most of film’s funniest moments.

Is there a secret political message buried in the film? It’s hard not to notice a harmonious Hong Kong business and relationship is being broken up by an intruder from mainland China. Then again, it is a difficult time for Hong Kong – perhaps I’m imagining subtexts everywhere.

This is amiable enough for Hong Kong audiences and foreign film enthusiasts to get a passing kick out of it, but really it is a little too unfocused and uneven to warrant a strong recommendation. On top of that, there is far too little time spent on driving buses. A calling indeed. Somewhere in Hong Kong, a translator in a marketing department has lied to us all.

Thanks to Stephanie Lai for translation assistance.

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