96 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***
The story: Ching (Miriam Yeung) is a tour guide whose doctor husband Cheung (Eric Tsang) is having a fling with a nurse. She is haunted by a strained relationship with her dead mother. To (Louis Koo) is a star tutor married to a beautiful actress, Ceci (Gigi Leung). A strong believer that the beautiful will inherit the earth, he is worried about the prospects of their plain-looking little girl, Chloe. Dong (Ng Man Tat) is a Taoist priest who performs funerary rites. What seems like separate stories is revealed to be the portrait of one single family and of Hong Kong in miniature.
Aberdeen is an ambitious undertaking for Hong Kong auteur Pang Ho Cheung. The film's Cantonese name, Heung Gong Zai, gives a better sense of the scope of the film. While it refers to Aberdeen, the English name of an area on Hong Kong Island, it also means Little Hong Kong.
In this portrait of the Cheng family, with patriarch Dong and his children Ching and To, Pang is also painting a picture of the territory's chequered past as a British colony and the winds of change that have blown across it. Dong came from a family of fishermen but he had to learn new skills to make a living when those living on boats were forced to move into housing estates in the late 1960s.
History on large and small scale entwines as Pang explores its consequences in modern-day society.
The movie marks a change of style for the director as well. If you are looking for scabrous comedy of the sort found in previous works such as A.V. (2005) and the award-winning Vulgaria (2012), you might want to adjust your expectations. Admittedly, I do miss his outrageous sense of humour but Aberdeen, while more low-key, does have its funny moments, such as when Chloe asks for funeral rites to be performed for her pet chameleon Greenie.
There are also some entertainingly fantastical scenes, including Ching riding in a paper-offering taxi and Greenie as a Godzilla-like monster on the rampage.
For the most part, though, Pang has drawn inspiration from stories that have made their way into the news. They include the man who divorced his wife after the birth of their ugly children, not knowing she had gone for plastic surgery; model-actresses available for the picking at private parties; and callous tourists who posed with a stranded dolphin, reimagined as a beached whale here.
All this is meant to be part of a compelling tapestry, but Aberdeen feels scattered in a way that Pang's best films do not. This is not the excellent movie about the weight of history, national and familial and its far-reaching consequences that John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) is.
So it is thanks to Pang's able ensemble cast that you get drawn in. Besides the main cast, Pang regulars such as Shawn Yue (Love In A Puff, 2010, with Yeung) and Chapman To (Vulgaria) also show up in interesting cameos.
In particular, singer-actress Leung is memorable in one of her meatiest roles in years. Some of the jibes about her character's lacklustre acting career cut a little uncomfortably close to the bone, but Leung proves, once again, she is more than just a pretty face.