Shaw Brothers studios produced this seriocomic fable about a family of mainland Chinese immigrants struggling on the streets of Hong Kong. When Pai (Anthony Chan) arrives in HK with wife Ah Yin (Kara Hui Ying-hung) and daughters Xiao Mei (Chiu Man-Yan) and Ti Ti (Ng Wing-Kei) in tow, he expects his father Chen Mu Ke (Ku Feng) to greet them. But the old man is struggling to get by as it is and swiftly flees the scene. They eventually track him down to an immigrant shelter that is little more than a cage the size of a chicken coop. After spending their last pennies on a single meal, wherein the starving Ah Yin stabs a dog with her chopsticks so she can eat the scraps off the floor, the family lose their shelter and thereafter sleep on the street inside an abandoned wardrobe. Chen expires from pneumonia shortly thereafter, leaving the family to fend for themselves. Hopelessly lost, frightened and confused amidst this bustling city of lights, the family stumble from one madcap misfortune to another.
Based on the above synopsis, Family Light Affair (whose Chinese title translates literally as: City Lights) might not sound like a bundle of laughs, but while a handful of bleakly comic episodes cross the line into bad taste (e.g. the family mistakenly eat their dead fathers ashes; hug a dead child they've mistaken for Ti Ti to the horror of its bereaved parents; a sleeping Ah Yin is groped by a drunk British businessman and Pai idiotically demands to know whether she enjoyed it), the film makes a number of pertinent points about HK street life in the bubble economy driven Eighties. It's a laughing on the outside, crying on the inside kind of comedy, while the spirit of Charlie Chaplin hovers over its socially conscious slapstick. Most evident in a dream sequence wherein the family imagine themselves as nouveau riche diners at a swanky restaurant, only to awaken to find they've been sleepwalking through a fancy eaterie.
As in Let's Make Laugh, Cheung's co-producer and leading man is Anthony Chan, onetime drummer with hugely popular Cantopop group The Wynners. The Wynners headlined their own movie musical Let's Rock (1975), but are best known in the west for being parodied by Jackie Chan as The Losers in Armour of God (1986), which co-starred lead singer Alan Tam and featured Chan and bandmate Kenny Bee in cameos. Together with Kenny Bee and Alfred Cheung, Chan formed a production comedy for which he went on to direct a string of sex comedies like Mr. Virgin (1984), Carry On Doctors and Nurses (1985), and Happy Bigamist (1987), culminating in his far more ambitious project A Fishy Story (1989), for which Maggie Cheung won the best actress prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Chan emigrated to the US after retiring from the film industry, but reportedly now runs a business in China.
Some of what unfolds in Family Light Affair occasionally evokes comparison with John Ford's Tobacco Road, a similarly well-intentioned but too broadly comic tale of simple folk. There is something regrettably patronising in yoking laughs from clueless country bumpkins, but a lot of the humour highlights their plight: the family put on a pathetic spectacle trying to convince yuppie diners to spare some food; the attempt to pass Ti Ti off as a cripple; a homeless man's delight at being paralysed since it gets him off the street into a nice warm hospital bed.
Most shocking perhaps is how childish and selfish the grown-ups often seem, over-excited, prone to temper tantrums and squabbling over food. When Chen dies, Ah Yin bemoans the inconvenience, contemplating whether they can latch on to another father. Although cynical, there is a ring of honesty here, underlining how extreme poverty can drive some people to do desperate things, regardless of dignity or morality. An additional satirical layer arises from the fact that most of Pai's mishaps are caused by his inability to trust authority figures, whom he mistakes for their corrupt mainland equivalents. Alfred Cheung lightens the mood with a number of rather more surreal japes, including one laugh-out-loud moment when cops chase the perpetually solemn-faced Xiao Mei who unexpectedly spins into a kung fu stance and kicks their asses.
An eclectic cast of kung fu icons shine in atypical roles, including superstar Kara Hui Ying-hung who was Shaw Brothers top martial arts diva at the time. Lo Lieh again demonstrates his remarkable range, playing a blind homeless street vendor ("I lost my sight in '68. Just when bar girls started wearing miniskirts, god damn it!") and Bill Tung - a regular in the Police Story (1985) series - plays a blind street musician forever boasting about his Pierre Cardin belt ("Once I was unemployed, now I'm a beggar! I've come up in the world!"). Events climax when Pai and Ah Yin stage a botched robbery that turns into a standoff with HK police as they take an Indian security guard hostage. Perpetually hungry, their demands include food, but the Sikh turns down their offer of a curry "(Please, let it be duck in hoi sin sauce, I'm sick of curry!"). Thereafter, Cheung leaves it open ended whether the family return home to their meagre homestead or try to make a go of it in Hong Kong. An uncertain end for uncertain times, keeping in mind this was the year Britain finally set a date to handover Hong Kong to mainland China.