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Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Directed by Chek Wan-Chi, Vital Signs tells the story of Ma (Louis Koo), an older ambulanceman with a stoic face but a soft heart. The film illustrates Ma’s daily struggles, navigating single parenthood, a new work partner with different values, and chronic pain from his own health ailments.
After his wife died while he was at work saving other lives, Ma was left alone to take care of his young daughter, Bonnie (Ariel Yin). His parents-in-law from Canada visit Hong Kong to convince the single father that Bonnie will be better off living in Canada, where they can help take care of her and where she has more future opportunities. Agreeing for his daughter’s sake, Ma applies to emigrate from Hong Kong to move to Canada. But, when his application is declined and hers is accepted, he’s confronted with a choice: give up on being with Bonnie to send her to Canada, or keep Bonnie by his side in Hong Kong?
At the same time, at work, Ma is paired with Wong Wai (Neo Yau), an ambitious new ambulanceman who strives to move up the chain of command. While Ma focuses on saving lives and often ignores rules to do so, Wong Wai works strictly by the books and solely for the sake of getting promotions. The two clash while out on cases, as they each cannot understand the other’s mindset, but that starts to change once Wong Wai meets Ma’s cousin-in-law, Miffy (Angela Yuen). As sparks fly between the two and Wong Wai gets to know Bonnie, Ma, and Miffy, the two ambulancemen build an understanding between them and begin to work better together.
Once Ma’s immigration application was denied, he began to focus on earning money and forcing Bonnie to take extra classes in preparation for Bonnie’s move to Canada alone. Miffy and Wong Wai strongly disagree with the decision to send the child away, and when Bonnie finally breaks down and confronts Ma, he winds up feeling more confused than ever. Left to make the final choice himself, Ma must decide what’s best for him and his daughter while making sure everyone can also be happy.
Vital Signs is a heartbreakingly relatable film, especially for single parents who must also work to provide for their family. Ma’s attitude in the film stems from his late wife’s death, and Louis Koo portrays this with ease, expressing the melancholy and nostalgia anytime she is brought up with his eyes. The doleful tone of the film is emphasized with somber instrumental music, muted colors, and frequent slow panning shots, as if life just moves at a sluggish pace. At times, though, the slow pace was a double edged sword, as it heightened the emotion and lethargic feeling at times, but also made the film longer than necessary.
The highlight of the film, however, was Ariel Yin, who portrayed young Bonnie and skillfully expressed her complex emotions. Although Bonnie was dealing with grief from her mother’s passing and loneliness from her father’s absence due to work, she still had a playfulness to her, typical of a child. She would play around with her dad and radiated a bright personality. As the film progressed, however, Bonnie became quieter and more reserved. At the end, she exploded into a fit of rage, crying, screaming, and questioning her dad’s love for her when he decided she should immigrate to Canada without him. Yin delivered an emotional and raw performance that conveyed the tidal wave of feelings Bonnie was harboring.
Illustrating the struggles of the older working generation, Vital Signs evokes a renewed appreciation for single parents and essential workers, especially from immigrant families who left their homes in hopes of creating a better life for their children. Finishing the film, the first thought that comes to mind is to say “thank you” to those who went through these hardships for their children’s futures.