Set in a towering apartment complex in 1970s Hong Kong, Esther Cheung’s In Passing is an unusual sort of documentary. A typhoon looms in the background, but it isn’t a film about disaster. It’s inspired by her parents’ youth, but it isn’t a family story, either. Instead, it’s a portrait of a time and place, capturing the hazy, humid Hong Kong of her parents’ memory in a series of beautifully rendered, smartly observed moments. 

Cheung’s parents grew up in the same apartment complex at the same time, without ever meeting. Their history adds to the film’s sweetness, but that knowledge isn’t necessary to appreciating what Cheung has accomplished. Even with the minimal story, the mood is more than evocative enough to fill the frame. The mood is set through long, lingering shots, using the movement of characters or the shifting of light instead of camera movement to lead the viewer’s eye. The careful compositions lend a polished, cinematic air to the film, but the lighting is what really pushes it over the top. Whether its a sun hidden behind the haze, rapidly moving shadow of a wall of cloud, or the warm flare of a fresh-struck match, Cheung displays an impressive knack for using her lighting to create mood and advance the story at the same time.

More than anything, In Passing has a warmth to it that’s hard to put into words. You can feel her affection for the setting and its characters coming through the screen, a mix of familial care and a once-removed nostalgia that come together to create a uniquely serene portrait.

風不太冷 In Passing

dir: Esther Cheung

syn: A portrait of seventies Hong Kong, as my parents remember it.

Behind the scenes: It’s Nice That has a great interview touching on Cheung’s process, inspirations, and more.

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