Schoolteacher Lam Yiu-Kwok (Jacky Cheung) sits on the beach with his oldest son and reflects on his life. All of his former classmates now have the kind of yachts he can see bobbing along the water. His eyesight is dwindling, his means are modest, and his students are disinterested in the Chinese literature that moves him.
Coinciding with Lam's midlife crisis is the appearance of a beautiful young student, Wu (Karena Lam), who inexplicably falls for this ordinary-looking man. The film bears a passing resemblance to other tales of middle-aged longing, from Lolita to American Beauty, but it manages to carve its own path to become an affecting story of the unspoken, unrequited desires coursing beneath placid daily life.
July Rhapsody alternates between the present, in which Lam tries to coax his students to love Chinese literature, and the past, when Lam was a student himself, guided by admiration for his own professor Mr. Seng (Tou Chung-Wah), and the world seemed like an open book.
But the film isn't just a story about a middle-aged man lamenting missed opportunities. July Rhapsody is also about children beginning to see their parents as real people. While Lam sifts over his life's choices, his wife (Anita Mui) reveals a dark family secret involving Mr. Seng to their inquisitive older son, which demonstrates how his parents transformed from idealistic schoolkids to floundering, dissatisfied parents.
Director Ann Hui, working from a fine screenplay by Ivy Ho, sets her tale of ennui in a gray Hong Kong of towering apartment buildings draped with laundry. The buildings loom over the petty troubles of the people below, enhancing the director's potent atmosphere of gloom. Set design alone suggests that the city is filled with regrets and gaping economic divisions between ordinary people like Lam and his contemporaries, who live in shining modern penthouses with a view of the sea.
Films at the High presents July Rhapsody in conjunction with the Hong Kong Panorama film series Fri., Feb. 13 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium. $5, $4 members. 404-733-5000. www.high.org.
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