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I have to admit there was a little bit of apprehension going into the movie because Johnnie To's recent effort Linger continues to linger in my mind as one of the worst romantic films seen in recent years. No doubt I'd prefer To's gangster flicks, but sometimes market forces and demand dictates opportunity that cannot be passed over. So with his usual Milkyway crew and regular cast such as Lam Suet, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu, To and frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai make another attempt at the romantic genre with this film that proves, thankfully, to be notches up from Linger.
And perhaps one of the positives coming out from the film which aided in its enjoyment, was the fact that the language track was left unmolested here by the powers that be. It's in a smattering of Cantonese, Mandarin and some English, which in all likelihood reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong society with its foreign base from the occasional Indian, Caucasian, and of course the influx of Chinese from Mainland China. In the past all utterance of spoken Cantonese would have been dubbed over, so this is yet again another small but successful push of the envelope in our local cinema scene.
One of the two opening films at this year's Hong Kong Film Festival, Don't Go Breaking My Heart tells of a love triangle between three characters brought about by the indecision of the girl Zixin (Gao Yuan Yuan), who journeyed from Suzhou to Hong Kong to follow her boyfriend, find herself being dumped, and becoming the object of affection of both a drunkard bum Qihong (Daniel Wu), and a self-made finance industry CEO Shenran (Louis Koo). Her budding relationship with Qihong comes from the latter saving her from an accident while in her post- dumped, delirious state, and becoming the surrogate owner of her ex-boyfriend's frog. Qihong soon disappears for the most parts of the first hour, and here's when Shenran becomes her target. Yes, you heard that right, because the lass does what you can do in today's Internet age, and discovers he's a mighty fine catch with the kind of money in his possession.
Set about the time of the Lehman Brothers debacle, Shenran becomes Zixin's boss, and a relationship with a subordinate is nothing to frown upon, having to fast forward their relationship through the throwing of a Masserati and a luxury condo penthouse at Zixin. Impressed, her mind's almost made up if not for the re-entry of Qihong into her life, now reborn into a new lease of life going back to the architectural profession he turned his back on, in an office located opposite Zixin's. And this is perhaps one of the brilliance of the story, with the trio able to engage in romantic shenanigans through their office windows, and this is something that is extremely plausible given the close proximity of buildings in Hong Kong that Singapore too is emulating given our scarcity of land and exorbitant office rentals.
Is the modern relationship defined by material wealth, with no money being having no honey? It certainly seemed so in this romantic tale, where Zixin doesn't even bat an eyelid at Qihong at first given his bum like appearance and lack of prospects, and her obvious delight when discovering Shenran is an alpha-male who rock climbs and having riches beyond her wildest dreams. And even though Shenran's been proved a playboy and a cad time and again with the amount of cleavage that he can't take his eyes off from, leaving him becomes that impossibility given the opportunity costs that goes along with it. As for Qihong's, he's a little bit of a softie and a nice guy that tries really hard to get the girl, being that sentimental man hanging onto every sliver of memory from the past, taking care of a frog for companionship, and the perfecting the art of cooking mussels from a restaurant that he shared a meal with Zixin once.
What made this film work is the chemistry amongst the trio, that while you may not like their characters, they're made believable through the actors' performances, except perhaps for parts when you know Zixin's behaviour in the real world would lead to her being fired from her job. Lending supporting star power are JJ Jia as Qihong's assistant and Shenran's temporal dating distraction, and Lam Suet (this is Milkyway after all) as the atypical office kay-poh to provide some much needed comic relief as the film propels toward the third act that relied on plenty of cheesy moments to try and wrap it all up. But being made for the Chinese market would mean toeing a very conservative development, and providing that air of affluence to target trap its intended audience - overnight roundtrip flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, anyone?
At least the film had the courage to resolve this messy triangle, unlike its Hollywood counterparts which would opt to keep things ambiguous or open ended just because. But having to come to a decision was a long drawn effort that bloated the runtime to close to two hours, and an abrupt ending that didn't do much justice to one of the characters, having just shown a purposeful change that made it more like an act put up instead. However this is a romantic comedy meant as a date movie, with Hong Kong providing most of the backdrops in which stories get told, though with the Milkyway brand I was half expecting some form of thuggery to appear in a shoot them up.
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