June 21, 2011
The evil geniuses over at Hong Kong’s Milkyway Image productions (above, looking evil) have begun their takeover of the Mainland. Johnnie To (seated) and his long time co-director and screenwriter Wai Ka-fai (flashing the horns) have had their last decade of gangster sagas (Election, Triad Election, Exiled, et. al.) banned or censored in China. So in an effort to expand their audience, they are making two Chinese co-productions, both romantic dramas, back-to-back. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was released in March of this year (and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray), and Romancing in Thin Air recently wrapped production in Yunan province, and should open early in 2012.
Regarding Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Johnnie To told the South China Morning Post that, “we believe in our ability to bring our own style of filmmaking to audiences up there.” But then went on to hedge that, “It’s not exactly the kind of film that could best bring our skills to play – but if we were to do something else, like a police thriller, we would have to attend to a lot of potential problems with the censors.” A director, like any artist, is also a full-time hustler, and has to follow the money in order to get their work made. With Hong Kong’s film industry in an across the board decline and the Mainland still flush with cash, Milkway Image is making artistic concessions to keep afloat. The strange thing about To’s comment is that they’ve made superb romantic comedies before, including the smash hit Needing You in 2001 and the wonderful cult item My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (’02). Their skills certainly play well in that genre, although it’s clearly not where his creative interests lie right now. In the downtime between the Chinese super-productions, he shot a low-budget HK thriller starring Lau Ching-wan, Life Without Principle, whose release date is unknown.
Even with all the concessions to Chinese censors, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is an impeccably constructed and eccentric comedy. The plot concerns a love triangle set during the 2008 financial meltdown, in which a spunky stock market analyst (Gao Yuanyuan) is torn between the wooing styles of a suave investment banker (Louis Koo) and an earnestly charming alcoholic architect (Daniel Wu). To sets up their dynamic in an exchange of point-of-view shots in the opening scene in Hong Kong. Gao wedges herself onto a bus during a morning commute, while Koo cruises by in his luxury convertible. Gao has moved from Suzhou in the north, and tries to teach herself Cantonese during the ride (the majority of the film is in Mandarin, another concession to Chinese audiences). Koo pulls up next to the bus at a stoplight, and eyes her through the window, with Gao briefly accepting his gaze. This establishes the central visual motif, of looking, and physically communicating, through panes of glass.
Gao gives up her seat to a pregnant woman, who then turns out to be the wife of her ex-boyfriend. The wife then panics at Gao’s presence, and her ex urges her to leave the bus before his wife gets hysterical. She leaves, jittery and angry, and trips and falls in the middle of the street. This is where a bearded and homeless looking Wu steps in, directing traffic around her while helping to pick up her papers. Koo, who had followed her off the bus, loses her in the scrum, and Wu starts a flirtation that secures a date the following week. This sequence cements Koo as distant and voyeuristic, and Wu as selfless to the point of masochism.
To extends the motif of looking/looked-at the following business day, when Koo notices that Gao works in the skyscraper across the street a few floors above him. To get her attention, he makes a smiley face collage out of post-it notes on his window, and once he attracts her glance, he does a mini-magic act and pantomimes where to meet her for some coffee. Enraptured by his bravado, and by how he breaks the spell of their mutual voyeurism, she agrees to their date. However, another woman on a lower floor also saw Koo’s performance, and she intercepts him before his rendezvous with Gao. This interloper is revealed in one of the final counter-shots in the sequence, the perfect punchline to reveal how much POV shots can hide. Gao and Wu learn the effects of this perspectival narcissim, when both are stood up for dates (Gao by Koo, and Wu by Gao).
The triangle goes through some convoluted twists and turns over its 115 minute running time (including a mandated trip to China), and the narrative convulsions can be tiresome. But when the material strains credulity, To and Ka Fai’s staging and composition never fails them. After Gao’s company goes bankrupt, Wu’s architecture firm takes over his space, and in order to finally win Gao’s hand, he puts on a skyscraper magic show of his own, with more elaborate effects (he’s in the middle distance in the image below). It is the only way Wu can wrest screen space away from the image-savvy Koo.
To and Ka-fai are wise enough to leave both Wu and Koo as ambiguous figures. Neither is a simple good guy or douche, as is the norm in romantic comedies. Wu is gentle and understanding, but also exhibits neediness and passivity. Koo is charismatic and handsome, but also an arrogant philanderer. Both men obsess over one-upping the other, until their love is transformed into escalating bouts of childish violence. It seems Gao might be better off alone. In the end, she makes her choice between the two sods while once again looking out a skyscraper window, but this time the only thing she can see is her reflection.