Hong Kong melodramas: they are where one separates the tourists from the locals, or the dabbler from the true believers. It is easy enough for an international viewer to check out the latest Hong Kong crime thriller, or martial arts picture, and many will extend as far as the prestige dramas of Wong Kar-wai, but the melodramas are where the full-bore, authentic Hong Kong experience lies.
Combining light drama with elements of comedy, as well as throwing the odd moment of overwrought tragedy, the Hong Kong melodrama acts very much like a soap opera that has been condensed down to a 90-minute running time. They are essentially made for domestic audiences; there is no expectation of a significant festival run or foreign release. With an assumption of local audiences in hand, these films offer an insight into specific elements of Hong Kong culture and society. If, like me, you have visited the city and fallen in love with it, they can be a weirdly addictive.
Let us not beat around the bush: Kwan Wing-chung’s 2021 drama Ladies Market is not great. Its technical presentation is modest, its narrative bundled with stereotypes, and it is all smothered by an overly familiar piano-based score. Its key focus is Tung (Arrommy Leung), a young illegal immigrant abandoned in Hong Kong and living with market trader Shan Lao (Liu Kai-chi) in the inner suburb of Mong Kok. Tung does not go to school, but does wear a uniform and pretend to do his homework. Most of his time is spent undertaking petty scams in the local “Ladies Market”.
Meanwhile Shan has unwittingly allowed a colleague to keep some stock in his storage unit, unaware that his friend’s stock is actually a kidnapping victim (Ma Suet-ching). Also secretly hidden in the unit are stolen goods critical to a police sting of a local gang boss, as well as goods owned by truck driver Pui Yi (Annie Liu); who struggles to make ends meet after her father died and left her the business. She is also adjusting to the return of high school crush Chi-ho (Ron Ng), now a member of the local criminal gang.
The setting is a highlight. Ladies Market was shot on location at the actual famous market, as well as in the run-down apartment and storage complexes of Mong Kok, and offers a less glamorous insight into Hong Kong that what the tourists generally see. The screenplay is ably lifted by a talented cast, even if they sometimes are saddled with some over-the-top behaviour bordering on the histrionic. Liu Kai-chi is particularly entertaining as the gruff, corner-cutting Shan Lao. The actor passed away shortly after completing his work here, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
This is not a great film, and certainly not a necessary one. It is, however, a perfectly watchable diversion, and a solid example of Hong Kong domestic cinema. You could do worse, but you can certainly do better.