Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Song of Hope

Last Saturday just before attending the twentieth show at Yau Ma Tei theatre, I watched the preview of Les Miserables at Broadway Cinematheque across Reclamation Street.

Friends asked me why I could possibly press myself that hard. All I know is that I have been haunted by a growing sense of urgency: Time is running short. If this is what I'm gonna do, just do it. Right away. Leave no regret.

And I'm glad that I didn't wait until Christmas when the film is officially launched, because I need to watch it again.

Set in Paris at the dawn of the age of revolution in nineteenth-century Europe, Les Miserables paints a bleak picture of the poor and deprived in the political turmoil after the downfall of Napoleon. Monarchy was restored and overthrown, and there was hardly any sign of improvement. Everyone was yelling their hearts out but remained unheard. People were struggling to survive with no pride and dignity. They worked hard, but too many of them died young from disease and starvation, unnoticed and in silence, just like Fantine, mother of Cosette. They were helpless. They were angry. They wanted change. But they gave in to fear and doubt when the students called on their support in the June uprising – a much-forgotten student protest in French history similar to what led to the Tiananmen Square bloodshed in June 1989.

Politics aside, Les Miserables does not run short of moral questions to challenge the audience's intellectual capabilities. What is justice? Can justice be done without the law? Can we take law to mean justice? The key question is: What is good and what is bad? How can we tell? By his/her deed or heart? At which point we can give the verdict? Or are we supposed to do so at all?

Everything just seems too familiar and relevant. I haven't got the chance to read Victor Hugo's original masterpiece, but the musical based on one of the world's greatest novels is good enough to present a feast for thought. All these issues and questions are universal to humanity, transcending time, cultures and geography. And this is what makes Les Miserables truly a timeless classic.

Thanks to the director Tom Hooper, the latest film adaptation is not a faithful representation of the musical on stage. It is a rich-coloured, visually appealing and pleasing film. Indeed, presenting the plot and characters through vocal singing instead of reading the lines can be a great challenge for filmmakers, because the delivery is intrinsically quite incompatible with the form. Yet Hooper managed to overcome this challenge with masterly cinematography and directorship. The cast and the casting manager also share a big credit for making this film a blockbuster worldwide.

While Anne Hathaway's Fantine is by all means impressive and thrilling, I found Samantha Bark's Eponine an equally great nice surprise. Pardon me for my ignorance, I didn't know she is a musical actress and has played the same character in the Les Miserables 25th anniversary concert until I looked up Youtube for the song Do You Hear the People Sing? I can't agree more with one of the commentators on Youtube that it is a huge problem for not crediting her in the promotions and trailers.

But I know all these don't add up and make me cry. I felt terribly sorry for Fantine and Eponine, and their heart-breaking misery and sorrow did touch the soul. Yet tears only streamed down my cheeks when Do You Hear the People Sing? was sung. I cried even harder, almost suffocating, when the finale was chanted. While I don't really remember the plot from the first glimpse of the musical in London 11 years ago, this song is all I can recall, recite and sing along. The music is so heartening and the lyrics so encouraging. At the time when we are being drowned in frustrations and disappointments, this is a long-due boost of hope and courage for us to carry on, or at least to endure the hardships and uncertainties ahead.

If someone asked, "What is the value of art?" That's it.


  1. Anonymous9:05 am

    Coincidentally I saw that movie on Christmas day in Toronto and liked it. I plan to watch it again when I have a chance. Years ago I watched the stage performance in Toronto and ever wondering when it will be adapted into a film. Perhaps due to copyright and commercial issues it did not materialize until now.

    Human suffering as depicted in Les Miserables is still very much real in today’s world as well as in the 19th century France. Many people choose to ignore the hard fact and look the other way. The film, as well as the novel and the musical before that, is in fact very political, religious, philosophical and thought-provoking. It touches the raw nerves of people with conscience. I am not sure the film will generate an intellectual discussion in HK. Maybe unlikely.

    It was reported that when the culture officials from China saw the musical in the west, they were so impressed and decided to bring the show to China. Perhaps they were impressed by the revolutionary scene that reminds them of the Commune of Paris, a precursor of the communist movement. Ultimately the musical did go to China. Ironically it seems to be more real over there. The theme “Once a thief always a thief.” brings me back horrible memories. Many HK people may share that sentiment with me.

    In the West there has been great progress being made in the past 50 years in terms of human right and justice. Of course the struggle is still on going. Hate to say that in China the society remains feudal and brutal from May 4th Movement to June 4th Movement.

    As you pointed out that the film gives people hope in a seemingly hopeless world.

    Ontario, Canada

    1. Intellectual discussion in Hong Kong is virtually non-existent, if ever, especially when it is to be triggered by a commercial film like Les Miserables. People here often focus on the cast and their vocal singing rather than the moral lessons offered, which is largely taken as personal.


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