11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 45


Suursweet (`15', Curzon West End)

Through Eastern eyes

Hilary Mantel

The story has its ebullient beginning at a wedding in Hong Kong: a noisy, jolly Wedding, with a young bride and groom about to leave for England. Lily (Sylvia Chang) is a sparkling, attractive girl; she looks fragile, but her father, a renowned Martial arts exponent, has taught her the tricks of his trade. Chen (Danny Dun) is a duller character, we sense; a little diffi- dent, but looking forward to his new life.

From the enfolding hills, misty and pale, We are precipitated into a hellish scene of sizzling panic in a Soho kitchen; the homeland bus on the rural road gives way to the London double-decker, nosing• its Way through the night to Peckham. Chen is a waiter; he and Lily live in a council flat With Lily's younger sister Mui (Jodi Long). They have a little boy, Man Kee — played by the winningly named Speedy Choo, at whose screen presence even hard-hearted critics are moved to coo and simper. Has the immigrant dream turned sour? Their surroundings are bleak; Lily wants to make a break for it and open a place of their own, but Chen won't hear of it. At home Chen represents himself as the unenter- prising slave to a lifetime's cautious habits; yet in Soho — partly unwittingly, partly through recklessness — he is putting him- self in grave danger.

This film is a product of a distinguished Collaboration; it is adapted from Timothy Mo's prize-winning novel, directed by Mike Newell (of Dance with a Stranger) and scripted by Ian McEwan, who wrote the screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch. From the opening scene the direc- tor sets a brisk pace and employs telling but not obtrusive — contrasts and juxta- Positions. Given coarser handling, we Could have had a soft-centred thriller which did little more than trade on clichés about the expatriate Chinese; but the screenplay, skilfully catching the novel's spirit, is

sharp, humorous and full of insight. Little ironies barely ripple the surface of the tale.

Chen's father, in Hong Kong, has debts; and it is a matter of honour that his son should help to pay them off. The naïve young man is tempted to the gaming tables of the private Soho clubs; and before long he is heavily in debt himself. Soon comes an offer to `help you out', an offer from 'good Chinese people', who represent, they say, 'the old and true way'. The debts are paid off; but of course, Chen is being set up as a courier by drug-smUgglers, who are involved from time to time in ferocious clashes with their rivals. The Triads are now so embedded in the Western and cinematic view of Chinese life that this part of the story is less interesting than the domestic insights we are offered, and indeed it's possible to get confused about the machinations of the gang leaders; but the atmosphere of tension and fear is well realised, and the violent episodes are cleverly placed to make maximum impact.

Chen ducks out of the weekly drugs delivery to Sheffield which his bosses have scheduled for him; and he must disappear, with his family, into the seediest, most unlikely location he can find. The family's new take-away, the Dah Ling, is situated in a tumbledown house under a viaduct, next to a scrapyard, opposite Mr Constanti- nides' garage ('Cheap Dery Cash Only'). The two women wander in dismay through the filthy place, before falling to their knees to scrub the floor. Mui, a morose girl who has lived in her sister's shadow, shines in these miserable circumstances, and has soon built up trade among the passing HGV drivers. By now the film has drawn us so far into the family's world that we are inclined to see the customers through their eyes. 'Only a few types of faces ... no expression ... empty eyes ... very funny skin ... ghosts.' Mui, who has introduced sweet and sour chips to the menu and has taken up with a Belgian lorry driver, protests, 'they got feelings just like every-

body else'; but the others look uncon- vinced.

It is inevitable that Chen's tormentors will catch up with him, though what happens next is not quite what we might expect. The ending is the same as the novel's, though the delicate pathos of the original just escapes the film's grasp. But that is a small complaint to make of a warmly enjoyable film, beautifully ba- lanced, artful and intriguing.