⚠️Warning — Spoilers Ahead!
Set in the 1960s British Hong Kong, Echoes of the Rainbow (EOR) is able to capture and shed light on contentious social issues, such as the growing prevalence of the use of English, the large wealth gap and immigration that are reminiscent of that period of the film. Let us take a look at how Alex Law’s clever use of symbolism revitalises the film.
The Items Big Ear (羅進二; 大兒牛) Stole
Breaking Down the Chinese Film Title — 歲月神偷
[The Chinese name of the film is 歲月神偷 (Direct translation = Years (歲月)/God (神)/Steal (偷); Title translation = Time, the Thief). The title commensurates with not only the early death of Desmond, but also how time is able to rob everything away effortlessly.]
So, what does time steal? Speaking of theft, isn’t Big Ear also an expert? What do time and Big Ear BOTH steal? Thieves can only be deemed as such if they steal something valuable. Let us take a look at the items Big Ear steals (in chronological order) and what they symbolise:
Turtle — Longevity
In Chinese culture, it is common knowledge that turtles represent longevity and tenacity. According to feng shui, turtles bring good fortune and blessings; and signifies the support for home, family, and relationships.
The fact that Big Ear steals a turtle may symbolize his attempt in taking control of time. Even so, ineluctably, however long a turtle’s life could be, it is ephemeral. Just like how Desmond tells Big Ear that nothing lasts forever (無嘢係永遠有效架).
Fish Bowl — History
The Past — Everytime Big Ear wears the fish tank on his head, the audience sees real footage of Hong Kong in the 60s through his eyes. Note that he wears the fish bowl upside down, which may represent the “reversal” of time. From this aspect, it may symbolise the past/history. Compared to the other rectangular fish tanks in the film, the fish bowl Big Ear stole is curved and small. This may show that history is “confined” and unchangeable, carrying out one of film’s key messages — Historical facts existed and are clear as day (transparent fish bowl) — they cannot be changed, but it will always be recorded; But as time goes on, memories of the past might fade and get hazy (curved fish bowl) and all that’s left is emptiness (the fish bowl is empty).
Luminous Wine Glass (夜光杯) — Inevitability of Death
Other than alluding to the film 夜光杯 in EOR, there is also a Chinese poem that references the luminous wine glass: 葡萄美酒夜光杯，欲飲琵琶馬上催。醉臥沙場君莫笑，古來征戰幾人回。（唐代王翰的《涼州詞》）(Direct translation: The war horn gives its signal as the soldiers were drinking wine with luminous wine glass. It makes no difference whether the soldiers go into the battlefield drunk, because not many return anyway.) This represents the inevitability of facing death.
Monkey King Sun Wukong (孫悟空) Sculpture from Chinese Temple — Enlightenment
The name 孫悟空 translates as the “monkey awakened by the emptiness.” Corresponding to Buddhist beliefs and the Chinese novel Journey to the West, it delineates his character development from being apathetic, callow, and short-tempered to becoming compassionate and enlightened.
This is somewhat similar to Big Ear’s character development. Throughout the whole film, Big Ear is mischievous, audacious and fractious. In contrast, at the end of the film, he is seen treating his mother with deference and good care.
“Law” Chop/Seal 「羅」字印鑑/印章— The Chinese Tradition and Identity
In the past Chinese context, chops and seals were often used as signatures for official documents. Nowadays, chops are still used for identification (such as mailing). It was common to engrave their own surname on top. Big Ears is shown stealing the chop with the surname “Law” (羅), which is the surname of his family.
Before Big Ears steals the chop, there is a conversation between him and the white policeman. During the conversation, he denigrated their family, “你地姓羅架嘛, 英文譯做Law, 邊得架? 法律? 香港地講法律? What law? 梗係要譯做 ”Low”, 先有得撈(Low)啦!” (Direct translation: Your family name is “羅”, how can it be translated to “Law”? How can you speak of law in HK? You should translate it as “Low”, then you can “Low” (being employed/achieve a certain status). This impudent remark clearly shows the social hierarchy of English over local Chinese. In fact, it may indicate that the English have the power to steal the identity of local Chinese Stealing the chop may indicate Big Ear’s sense of identity and respect over his own family name.
British Flag — British Colonial
Stealing the British flag from a fire station is self-explanatory — it reflects the hope of ending the colonization, or perhaps it might also symbolize freedom (Remember the song I Wanna be Free played and sung multiple times in the film). Although the young generation are more accepting towards the use of English and the British ruling, the older generation’s (Big Ear’s fatter) antipathy towards British empowerment at that time is still prevalent.
Towards the end of the film, Big Ears throws everything he steals into the sea in hopes of seeing his late brother. He reiterates his grandmother’s saying, “正所謂苦海無邊…只要肯放棄最心愛嘅嘢, 冚把冷都唔要, 掟晒落個苦海, 將個苦海填滿佢, 就可以同親人重逢” (Translation: “If you are willing to sacrifice the things you treasure and throw them into the sea, you can reunite with the ones you love”). It may portray that Big Ear is giving up his own hope for the future (Fish Bowl), his life (Luminous Wine Glass), wellbeing (Monkey King Sun Wukong (孫悟空) Sculpture), and his freedom (British Flag).
Is Time stealing from the protagonist, or is Big Ear trying to steal time?
Home of the Laws — Law Kee Shoes 羅記皮鞋
Roof, Weather, and Rainbow
Big Ear’s father repeatedly states, “做人乜都假, 最緊要保住個頂, 唔駛好天曬, 落雨淋” (Translation: The most important part of life is maintaining the roof’s good condition, so that we don’t need to withstand the heat and rain during bad weather). He also plants a tree next to Desmond’s grave as he says this. Readers, what do you think the house symbolises? Family? Hong Kong? If so, what do the various weather symbolise/foreshadow (during the typhoon, Desmond collapse shortly after the roof is about to be blown away, see below)? What’s the difference between sunny and rainy weather? How is (double) RAINBOW (which is extremely rare, according to Desmond) related to this matter (English film title!)?
Significance of the two floors
「阿哥叫樓下做南海，樓上做北京。不過，呢兩個地方，佢其實都無去過。」(Translation: Brother (Desmond) calls the ground floor South Sea, and the upper floor Beijing. However, he has never been to either place.) The Typhoon incident marks the climax of the whole film. During this scene, Desmond supports the ground floor, whereas the rest of the family is kept busy maintaining the roof on the upper floor. As mentioned by Big Ear’s grandmother, the sea can represent death. This scene subtly foreshadows the separation of Desmond from his family, and ultimately, his death.
Other Symbols and Discussion
Shoes and Clothing
Shoes play a huge role in terms of symbolism in the film.
Wealth Gap — while everyone else is wearing spikes, Desmond wears white sneakers during his competitions. Did you notice other clothing characteristics that can represent the growing wealth gap of HK?
Theme — Everyone knows Big Ear’s mother’s famous quote, “一步難, 一步佳; 難又一步, 佳又一步……” ((take one step and you face challenge, take another something good happens). Why is this message carried out? How does her shoes at that moment in particular differ from the other shoes and moments when this quote is mentioned?
Different Generations — What is the difference between the clothing and hairstyle of the grown up Big Ear and Desmond? How does the Western influence HK fashion?
Do different types of fishes have different representations? What do they represent?
Wealth Gap — Desmond is from an indigent family, he is frugal and simple; whereas Flora is from a wealthy family. Do you remember what he said when he first visited? What can it imply?
Superstition — Desmond is incredibly assiduous when it comes to fishes. His favourite fish is Cardinalis cardinalis (紅彩雀). How many times has this fish appeared in the film and what can it imply?
HK History & Landmarks — Desmond says (and Flora repeats) fishes are forgetful, but there are some things they remember forever. What can this mean? (Hint: Goldfish Street 金魚街; British HK)