Animation Features Live Action Movies

The Lyricist Wannabe
(Tin4 Ci4 L,
lit. Lyrics Nerd / Dickhead)

Director – Norris Wong – 2023 – Hong Kong – Cert. 12a – 112m


A girl pursues her dream of becoming a Cantopop lyricist – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 15th

The movies are full of rags-to-riches stories in which someone dreams of becoming a star, works hard to achieve that, and it ultimately all comes true. While that can happen, because in real life there are clearly stars out there, in most cases it doesn’t. This film follows a similar path: a girl gives her all to achieve her chosen dream but ultimately doesn’t make it, which is probably a far more common occurrence than the one in which the aspirant succeeds.

Law Wing Sze (Chung Suet-Ying) is a student at a church school run by nuns. She doesn’t read music, but is obsessed by Cantopop and wants to write lyrics, spending much time rewriting lyrics of old Cantopop songs such as Infernal Affairs which she rewrites as Student Affairs. For this endeavour she is summoned to Sister Che’s office where the nun / teacher helpfully gives her a crit session and suggests she change certain words to more accurately express what she’s trying to say without unintended double entendres.

On the school’s Teachers’ Day, a number of musical acts perform including rhythm guitar player / singer William (Henick Chou from In Broad Daylight, Lawrence Kwan Chun Kan, 2023; A Light Never Goes Out, Anastasia Tsang, 2022) and his band, but Sze’s group is last on the bill and when the previous act performs for longer than they are supposed to, her own act’s slot is cancelled for lack of time (even as she and her mates attempt to carry a cheap, hollow statue of the Virgin Mary from the school courtyard onto the stage for their proposed performance).

When Peggy, a classmate schooled in piano, comes up with a tune, Sze draws inspiration for lyrics from her home background: she lives in the apartment of her parents’ (Eric Kot from Tracey, Li Jun, 2018; City Hunter, Wong Jing, 1993; Luna Shaw from The Moon Thieves, Yuen Kim-wei, 2024) with her brother, where her mother is convinced she’s not studying hard enough and her dad is constantly moaning to her mum about her mum’s cooking.

After her bestie Kai (Sabrina Ng Ping) leaves Hong Kong to study at an English university, Sze enters the Hong Kong songwriting contest, but isn’t even shortlisted.

Undeterred, she signs up for a lyricist 101 class with Wing Lo, who asks to be called Lo Sir (Chu Pak Hon from both Master Cheng, Mika Kaurismäki, 2019; and director Wong’s own My Prince Edward, 2019) and discovers that out of the five attendees, she’s the only one who wants to be a professional (one of the others is already a viral, internet sensation). Lo Sir warns her that no-one ever makes money from writing Cantopop lyrics, yet praises her when she answers a question about the importance of using rhyme in writing being down to it sounding logical.

Lo Sir later introduces the 0243 method of writing Cantopop lyrics, which dispenses with five of the nine tones found in Cantonese, instructing writers to use only the remaining four. Sze subsequently starts hearing conversations, such as her parents arguing about food, in terms of these four numbers and four tones, and it’s a revelation. (The film’s Cantonese title relates in part to these tonal qualities in that language; ‘L’ is Cantonese for nerd / dickhead.)

Enrolled as a science student, Sze emails some 126 music companies to find 83 of them are defunct and bounce her emails. She is so jubilant when a musician named Chris Lee sends her a tune for which to write lyrics that she excitedly bursts into her brother’s room to tell him, although he fails to match her enthusiasm. She meets with Chris (Tony Wu Tsz-Tung from Raging Fire, Benny Chan, 2021) who tells her that all songs are about death and love.

Back at home, she is shocked to find her old classmate Maru in her brother’s room. Wondering if she is sensitive enough about love to really be a lyricist, Sze strikes up a friendship with student Zeke (Tai Yukki) as he’s emptying rubbish bins on campus, but he isn’t really interested in her lyric-writing obsession and the relationship is doomed to fail, things coming to a head when they holiday in Taiwan with friends and she, armed with a CDr demo of Chris’ album on which she wrote the lyrics to one song, goes off to a meeting with a record company, upsetting her friends’ plans.

She later enters a further songwriting contest, for which the first prize is a lyricist’s contract, and finds herself working for Record Producer Wong (Yeung Wei-lung from Over My Dead Body, Ho Cheuk Tin, 2022) for a client who has an album of music and a singer Helencandy (Jeannie Ng Ka-Yan) all ready to go, but with no lyrics. Sze celebrates by taking her family out for a meal, which delights her dad as a welcome change from her mum’s cooking, only for the gig to go horribly wrong when, eager for her first published credit, Sze foolishly tells Helencandy she’s happy to write lyrics for free.

Thinking about earning a living in some unrelated career area, she gets a job at the innovative Free-Rider internet travel company which connects people wanting lifts with drivers, and finds herself writing a jingle for them, only for the company to run into legal difficulties, presumably caused by traditional and protectionist taxi firms. Needing a break from the pressures of the city, she winds up picking produce on a farm.

As with Wong’s earlier My Prince Edward, the writer-director demonstrates a strong feeling for local colour and detail – both a nun complaining about someone speaking during choir rehearsal and the scholastic institution of Teacher’s Day feel like someone has lived through that schooling, while Sze’s various attempts to crack the lyricist business feel like they were either experienced first-hand or heard in stories gleaned from fellow lyricist wannabes. Also as in My Prince Edward, there is the feeling of ordinary Hong Kongers living in cramped apartments (even though we never see the room where Sze’s parents sleep).

According to the press handouts, before turning to writing and directing movies – something for which she has a natural talent, Norris Wong spent two decades attempting to make it as a lyricist herself, which explains why much of the film is so engaging; she’s been there. She throws in one scene with big star Stephy Tang (another My Prince Edward alumnus) being besieged to be photographed with fellow event attendees Lo Sir, Sze and others, and another where the friendly Sze, in a lift at the radio station where she has a temp P.A. job, is ignored by her songwriting idol Calvin Poon Yuen-leung (here playing himself, notably the writer of Full Alert, Ringo Lam, 1997).

The film opens with and intermittently uses little flashes of pleasing animation, as, for instance, when Sze talks about writing lyrics and making words fit the ideas, shown as 2D animated, blue elephants trying to enter a fridge with a blue elephant already stuck inside, and animated physical grapes on a star-shaped pastry tart with eyes, mouth and upper lip hair. Elsewhere, elements of written Cantonese loiter on live action steps or fall from the sky like a minor snow flurry. These are nice touches which add a certain something to the larger whole.

In short, a curiously satisfying little film about the sometime impossibility of realising particular dreams.

The Lyricist Wannabe is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 15th.


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