Lai-yee practices her script in front of a mirror.

The medium shot keeps Lai-yee away from the centre, implying her inability to control her environment.

The direction for Big South Lake (“south” and “blue” share the same pronunciation in Cantonese). This scene implies that the memory of the protagonists is unreliable.

Chun’s imaginary space of the big blue lake.

Interview with one of the inhabitants, Lau She-tim.

Interview with one of the inhabitants, Lee Tai-tai.

The older generation performs their drama in the open piazza of Ho Chung village.

The performance of traditional opera stands in stark contrast to the performance of the older generation in the open piazza.

The performance of Taoist rituals during Taiping Qingjiao.

A panoramic view of Hong Kong’s rural surroundings.

The sublime beauty of the blue lake.

Lai-yee and Chun in front of the fish tank, listening to classical music.

May recalls the trauma of her daughter.

Lai-yee remembers the drowning that she experienced as a child.

The young Lai-yee stands in front of the blue lake.

Lai-yee and Chun listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (No. 14) in front of the fish tank.

The dreamy setting of the big blue lake in Chun’s subjective memories.


Liminal space as lived space:
enlivening memories and place

In his work on space and the construction of post-colonial identity, Homi Bhabha maintains that liminal spaces are cogent and productive because

“in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (1–2).

As an example of his thesis, he cites a postmodernist installation by the African-American artist Renee Green, which evokes a liminality that challenges fixed identifications and opens up “the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains differences without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (4). Ho Chung village in Big Blue Lake is also a liminal space, which represents both the entrapment and potential of the two main characters at a pivotal moment in their lives.

The otherness of Ho Chung village is underscored by its geographical situation. For example, a bridge links the old village with urban Hong Kong. The bridge suggests the invasion of urban development that has led to the disappearance of nature and old ways of living and has rendered Ho Chung a liminal space, trapped between rural traditions and urban innovations. Liminal physical space is also introduced at the opening of the film, when Lai-yee is introduced backstage, since backstage is an in-between space that suggests that the character is entrapped between pretense and self-knowledge. The sense of entrapment is reinforced when the camera later reveals the confines of Lai-yee’s small apartment in Britain. Here, the spatial relation between the character and the mise-en-scène is subjectivized. Close-ups and medium shots are used to keep Lai-yee away from the center: she cannot control the space and its materiality.

Ho Chung’s liminal space, in contrast, is one where the potential for reunion, self-reflection, and communion are maintained. The two main characters manage to develop a new relationship; Lai-yee is reconciled with her parents after her ten-year exile; and the elderly people of the village regain their self-respect. This sense of potential is strengthened by the meanings associated with the “big blue lake.” Big Blue Lake is a film title, a physical locale, and an imaginary space that encompasses childhood, adolescence, and the present. The city may have reshaped relationships, and the sense of community may have been supplanted by postmodern distrust, but the big blue lake brings back the sense of overlooked potential. It illuminates each character’s personal sphere and is also a shared part of the community’s experience.

Ho Chung village is an example of a representational space that is alive and speaks. To use the terminology of Henri Lefebvre, it has an affective kernel that embraces the “loci of passion, of action and of lived situation” (42). To Lefebvre, geography may confine and restrict the way we make sense of it; it is through human participation that we can bring alive spatial potential. And the lived experience that contributes to the fluidity of the space in Ho Chung is best represented by the oral histories and memories of the villagers. Recorded in a documentary style, several villagers share their personal memories of the village, their early closeness with nature, and their experience of the process of modernization.

Lai-yee decides to write a script and asks the older generation to act on an invisible “stage.” The elderly are encouraged to act out their past lives, performing their version of history, which includes sowing seeds, harvesting, fishing, singing, and interacting with nature. The play showcases the personal memories of the villagers. The script is unique because it underscores oral histories rather than official representations of the history of Hong Kong. The performance involves no outside audience but the villagers themselves. As producers, performers, and audience, the villagers reveal that history is a palimpsest: accumulation does not erase but adds another layer. The elderly villagers do not merely act out their memories but also revive them in the present, giving the younger generation new opportunities to reconnect with nature.

Lai-yee “translates” her interviews with the villagers into a play. During the interviews, the respondents are placed in the forefront of the camera, against the backdrop of the village and nature, in order to highlight their subjective experiences and memories. Their tales of growing crops, fishing, and communing with nature represent a mode of life that is totally different from that of urban dwellers (which is signified by the traffic at the entrance of the village). The interviews convey an acceptance of the transition from the old ways to the new Hong Kong. Still, the passion and emotion closely connected to the unsullied space of Hong Kong suggest a more fluid understanding of the identity of a place, one that allows us to sustain our attachment with nature. The cultural theorist Raymond Williams describes culture as a “structure of feeling,” reflecting people “as they actively lived and felt” (132). “Culture” refers to

“affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as feeling and feeling as thought” (ibid).

Although conceived in a different cultural context, his notion of the interrelation of consciousness and culture can be applied to our reading Hong Kong as a physical space experienced by its inhabitants. In Big Blue Lake, there is a possibility of a new reading of Hong Kong, entirely different from the alienated urban landscape presented at the beginning of the film.

The memories of the villagers become a source of inspiration: the lines between official histories and oral stories are blurred. This public stage is also the setting of the traditional festival Taiping Qingjiao (The Purest Sacrifice Celebrated for the Great Peace), which is held every ten years in Ho Chung village. During the week-long festival, villagers restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet, watch traditional Chinese opera, and perform other Taoist rituals. The stage is set for the re-enactment of the collective memory. The absence of a traditional stage eliminates the hierarchy of performer and spectator, puts the villagers themselves on centre stage, and transforms the public area of Ho Chung into a representational space. The reconceptualization of public space as a stage for memories and oral histories does not evoke symbolic or imaginary realms; rather, it is a platform for interweaving old and new experiences, which allows for the transcendence of boundaries and new readings of a place. The representational space does not merely purport to restore the past of the villagers; it also gives the younger generation an opportunity to reconnect with nature and to envision a future in harmony with the landscape. As the film shows, the landscape that surrounds Ho Chung is tied to people’s identity. It shapes and regulates their relationships with the past and the future, and it engenders a strong bond with the older generation.

Liminal space of cinematic techniques:
between looking and hearing

Throughout the film, there are references to the act of looking. For example, the characters are repeatedly shown looking at photos. These photos reveal the once intimate relationship between Lai-yee and May (in stark contrast to their present lack of physical contact), Lai-yee’s professional background (by means of her portraits in various costumes), and even the Ho Chung lineage (when Lam examines the black and white photos and photos of ritual ceremonies where women were excluded). The photos convey the protagonists’ quest to understanding the meaning of traditions and reveal the way that the past is caught in a series of visual images.

Chun’s profession as a photographer also highlights the importance of looking. Lai-yee’s job requires her to pretend to be blind to check on the customer service in a café. Her experience teaches that casual observation hinders people from looking correctly and at the right objects. This reinforcement of the visual is further strengthened by the obsession with camera by both characters. For example, Chun is shown with a camera around his neck a couple of times in the film. The urgency to capture a place on camera is revealed by the sorrowful progress from horizons of fields and hills to the city skyline. Rather than accepting change as inevitable, the film hints at ways to transcend these changes. This is accomplished by two means: highlighting the potential of the visual and finding the point of interception between the acoustic and the visual.

In Big Blue Lake, memories, which are prompted by the open space of nature, are also, interestingly, held in the contained space of a fish tank. The fish tank embodies the memories and childhood fantasies of Lai-yee, May, and Chun. The close-ups that show the characters as the backdrop of the fish tank can be understood as a way of blurring our understanding of the characters while foregrounding the importance of the water as a symbol and distinguishing feature of the village.

The repeated cinematic strategies that focus on the fish tank and frame the protagonists within the tank suggest an attempt to render identities static. However, one should look beyond the focus on the fish tank and see that stagnation triggers possible movement. There are several transitions from shots of the fish tank to shots of outdoor areas: Lai-yee’s mother leaves the house after looking into the fish tank, and Chun and Lai-yee search for the big blue lake after staring at its bluish water. This motion suggests a transcendence of confinement and stagnation. This transcendence purports to connect the inner self with the external world; the transitional scenes foreshadow this connection every time the fish tank is shown.

All five scenes devoted to the fish tank are followed by a cut to the outside world, where the protagonists experience nature. The scenes are repeated each time with a twist and an extension of meaning. The first scene of the fish tank is followed by May’s departure from home. This movement suggests an attempt to search outside and also the personal yearnings of May that have led her to search her past. The second scene captures the relationship of Lai-yee and Chun. The couple is shown behind the fish tank, and then the film cuts to the outdoors—showing them in the forest, searching for the big blue lake. The movement is from a personal to an interpersonal relationship. The third time the fish tank is shown, it is followed by a cut to one of the elders who, taking up the center stage of the frame, discusses his early bond with nature and the various kinds of planting he has done. This time the inner space is linked to the more communal space of Ho Chung village and, particularly, the old ways of life that have been destroyed by urbanization. The fourth fish tank shot is followed by a flashback of the lake involving several shots of the children’s legs, presumably those of the young Lai-yee and her friends. This scene introduces the revelation of the drowning accident that happened in Lai-yee’s childhood and still haunts her mother. The final shot of the fish tank is followed by darkness: Lai-yee picks up the camera left by Chun and presses the shutter. The subsequent darkness is followed by a scene devoted to the preparation of the village ritual, exemplifying the relation between the present and the past. This opening up of the visual conveys possibilities of transcendence and reflects the way the filmmaker’s self-reflexive strategy are used to escape confinement. A liminal space and a different temporality are achieved by these shifts.

This highlighting of spaces of different kinds is accompanied by a creative use of sound and music. Often the soundtrack challenges the visual images of Big Blue Lake, creating a tension between what is seen and what is heard. The in-between space bridging the visual and the acoustic suggests a different poetic time and space.

The effects and significance of non-diegetic music in Big Blue Lake should not be underestimated. As film and music critics have often observed, music does not merely “resemble” or “contradict” the particular mood of a scene. Jerrold Levinson has identified fifteen functions of music in film, including signification of a certain state of affairs, the creation of a mood, and a means of communicating fear, tension, or excitement.[4] [open endnotes in new window] In Big Blue Lake, however, music is not merely functional; it is a major component in narrative structure. The images, sound effects, dialogue, and music are inextricably intertwined. This combination is reminiscent of music’s capacity to create particular rhythm, mood, atmosphere, and cinematic space. More importantly in the case of Big Blue Lake, music supplies a dreamy rhythm that transcends the modern tempo of everyday life. Music constructs an alternate temporality, outside the urban imaginary of Hong Kong, which is closely related to the images of Hong Kong as a bustling financial center.

Masamichi’s soundtrack for Big Blue Lake functions on various levels. The dripping sound of river is a constant reminder to the protagonists and the audience of the dominant role nature plays and the fact that it has its own life. The dripping sound recalls May’s traumatic memories and reinforces the effects of her Alzheimer’s disease. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata reminds Lam Chung of practicing the piano with his first love in their adolescence. The “Little Flower Girl” song (based on “O My Darling, Clementine,” which recounts the story of a drowning) prepares the audience for Lai-yee’s childhood trauma. The recurrent music links past and present inextricably. It recalls memories and creates expectations. It links us to the cyclical time of nature and the recurring images of the river and the open sky that shows no sign of urban Hong Kong.

The movement from diegetic sound (monologues and dialogues) to non-diegetic sound (voice-overs) is also striking. During the conversation between Chun and Lai-yee in front of the fish tank when he reveals his “simulated story” of elopement, Chun’s voice in conversation is replaced by a voice-over expressing his subjective time and memories. The classical music that they listen to also transitions from diegetic to non-diegetic: it continues as the film cuts to their search for their primary school. The transition is smooth and abrupt at the same time: the audience is exposed to the constructed nature of Chun’s memories. A similar effect is created when the two protagonists recount their personal stories while searching for the big blue lake. Their diegetic dialogue again becomes non-diegetic—a voice-over, presented in the dreamy setting of the big blue lake.

At the same moment, the audience is reminded of the characters’ personal struggles because of the re-emergence of a musical motif from the beginning of the film. Music becomes a reminder of a particular psychological state. It creates an awareness of continuation and disjunction simultaneously. The transitions from dialogue to voice-over remind the audience of the storytelling aspects of the film: Chun’s version of his “story” and its “authenticity” are queried. The discontinuities in sound and image can hardly be resolved. Rather than relying on the eyes to chart a narrative progression, the narrative voice interrupts and poses questions.

Big Blue Lake is evidence of the recent return to nature and the countryside in Hong Kong cinema. The projection of a different façade of Hong Kong gives a better sense of the city’s true character. Hong Kong’s identity crisis has arisen because it is viewed from a conventional ingrained perspective, which does not comprehend Hong Kong itself. In order to understand Hong Kong, one must begin with a different perspective, a novel way of reading. The construction of liminal space of Big Blue Lake—in the spaces between the mainstream and the independent, the filmic and the social, and the visual and the acoustic—offers another view of Hong Kong, one where nature can trigger different imaginaries and possibilities. The alienation of the city is not eliminated, but it is articulated and possibly reconciled. The film suggests the possibility of a more harmonious relationship between the past and the present, nature and artifice, the self and the collective. In its refusal to present stark dichotomies, Big Blue Lake opens up the possibility of dialogue between the city and country, symbolized in the reparation of relationships with others and with the past.

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