A theatrical musical journey, covering the life of Austrian St Joseph Freinademetz - a well known Society of the Divine Word Priest and missionary in China.
His primary conviction, “Love is the only language that everyone understands” is dramatically demonstrated through the mediums of music, dance, and live performance. We take a look at Chinese director Lai Nor Ngan’s debut feature film St Joseph Freinademetz: The First Saint To Ever Serve In Hong Kong.
Born in 1852, Joseph Freinademetz was a missionary in China who found himself powerfully drawn to the native Chinese population. One of his many quotes tells us all we need to know about his religious and moral convictions.
“Missionary work is useless,” he believed, “if one does not love and is not loved. The greatest scourge for us all as well as the Chinese, are the crowds of morally inferior Europeans without any religion who swarm all over China. There is no doubt that our heathen Chinese are a hundred times better than these dregs of mankind. I have come to love my Chinese. I take China and its people and its language as my native country. I would die for them a thousand times over.”
Ordained as a priest in 1875, four years later Freinademetz and another priest John Baptist Anzer, arrived in Hong Kong, where for two years they prepared for their mission to Shandong, some 300 miles south of Peking. Although evangelized by the Jesuits in the 17th century, the province had only 158 Christians in 1881.
Aware that the Chinese elite identified Christianity with hostile foreign powers, Joseph adopted Chinese dress and concentrated his efforts on the peasantry. Having mastered Chinese, he was able to not merely preach, but also produce works of devotion in that language.
His mission was often dangerous and progress was slow but within six years he had more than 1,000 catechumens in 30 villages. Joseph finally succumbed to typhus in 1907 and was canonized as a saint in 2003. “I want to be Chinese in heaven,” he had said.
Debut director Lai Nor NGan gives us a musical extravaganza filming a live theatrical performance of St Joseph’s entire life punctuated by narration telling us all about his story, video images, dancing, masks, music, and hymns. I found the format initially jarring but once I adjusted to the techniques and accepted it as a play I warmed a little to it as it progressed.
It is difficult to use my usual review techniques when judging this production mainly because it is basically a theatrical show filmed live on stage. So due to this, the lighting techniques are minimal and remain more or less as they would in the theatre. There are blackouts and fade-ins with obvious lighting cues as well as scenes and songs performed by stage actors, children and puppeteers who all exit and enter via the wings of the stage while the set is also made up of basic theatre backdrops and props.
Dicky Cheung gives a strong performance in the lead role of St Joseph and he is ably supported by the rest of the theatre company. While some of the dance numbers are well done and I enjoyed the surprise element of using classical music standards such as The Blue Danube and providing them with lyrics in order to fit the story. Unfortunately, the original songs used during the show are not particularly memorable.
Overall the staging and production values reminded me of a local Gilbert and Sullivan musical production but what it does do it does well. St Joseph Freinademetz: The First Saint To Ever Serve In Hong Kong is certainly an acquired taste and won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. However, from an outsiders point of view it is certainly a fascinating story and although it doesn’t work as a film the cast and crew deserve a lot of praise for the effort they have put into this musical stage show as they have managed to create an interesting experiment.