Directed by Kit Hui
“Memory can be very fragile,” says a doctor in Kit Hui’s slow, moody film Fog. “Sometimes it’s out of our control.”
One of seven films in contention for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s Narrative Competition, Fog is the story of Wai (Terence Yin), a young man who has lost his memory in an accident and struggles awkwardly to both piece together his previous life and etch out a role in his new life. Set in 2007 Hong Kong, the film is backgrounded by the ten-year anniversary of the city’s handover of rule from the United Kingdom to China—like Wai, the city is undergoing a transitional moment, full of uncertainty about the future and doubts about the past.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about “transactive” memory, or the premise that we store much of the information in our memory within other people. Gladwell said in a 2000 interview in The Atlantic:
According to this theory, memory is a social construct: we store important pieces of it in our friends and our co-workers and so forth. This is part of a scholarly theory put forth by Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. There’s an observation that he makes that I just find extraordinary: he says that one of the reasons that divorce is so painful is that in divorce each party is literally losing a portion of their mind, because if you live with somebody for a number of years, your memory and your emotions and so on are stored in your partner. When you break up a marriage, you literally break up a mind.
We tend to think of memories as inanimate thoughts, but perhaps it’s more useful to think of them as people. Wai’s tries to put his mind back together with the help of the people in his life—his anxious mother, his self-absorbed teenage sister, his hard-partying friends, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, all of whom provide another abbreviated view of this high-cheekboned enigma sulking broodily through the streets of Hong Kong.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I tell people that the fog runs in my veins. I’m at ease with not knowing the complete story; with glimpsing what is there or perhaps not; with avoiding the harsh spotlight of unmitigated reality. Fog is a collection of oblique moments, things hinted at but not quite spelled out. For example, Wai’s accident has impacted his memory but we know not the details. We know he was a callous boyfriend and an indifferent brother. We know he was a partier and perhaps a lothario. Hui, who also has roots in the Bay Area, should be commended for constructing a coherent narrative out of mere wisps of a story and managing not to frustrate her audience.
We stick with Wai, even as he spends much of the movie with the bewildered look that Keanu Reeves has built his career upon. We follow him around town as he collects the breadcrumbs of his former bad-boy life. But the camera stays at a voyeuristic distance, peeking at him across the subway or following him as he wanders through a library or his former high school. Pot, Johnny Walker black label, cocaine, and sex in alleyways with marginal women only add to his self-induced fog.
Wai’s life is a mesh of past, present, and future, and all are unknown to him as they are to anybody. In a striking frame, he stands on a pedestrian walkway above a surging highway, with streams of cars going in both directions, towards and away. Like Hong Kong in this period, he rests uneasily in the middle of these streams — will he go forward or backwards? Will he assimilate into his old life or craft a new one?
The irony is not lost on me that I can’t remember where I heard that the more a memory is accessed, the more it is distorted. That is, the more we think about a specific incident, the more likely we are to change our remembrance of it. If we truly want to preserve a memory, we should not think back on it at all. “It’s better that you don’t remember some things,” a friend tells Wai in the film. Perhaps good advice for us all. — Lisa Wong Macabasco