Thursday, September 13, 2018

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai)

Crazy Rich A**hole

If we're talking lighthearted romantic fare involving insanely prosperous Asians I don't see why we need to go all the way to Hollywood when Hong Kong has been doing fine for years. 

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Dān Shēn Nán Nǚ, 2011) doesn't make the mistake of pitting a girl against her man's family--a decision that can only lead to pseudoprofundity and tears--but opts instead for the classic love triangle: Chi-Yan (Mainland actress Gao Yuan Yuan) has just ended a painful relationship of seven years; CEO Sean (Louis Koo) first spots her through a bus window while sitting in his gleaming Audi. Later the upset Chi-Yan (she'd been forced off the bus by her ex) unthinkingly crosses a street--big no no in heavily trafficked Hong Kong--and is saved by Kevin (Daniel Wu) a bearded alcoholic who takes the trouble to block oncoming cars while he helps her pick up dropped notes and papers.

Of course Chi-Yan must choose: true heart or bad boy? To's achievement is to make the choice a genuine headscratcher, as one man or the other demonstrates charm ingenuity determination to win the hapless girl. Gao's Chi-Yan has cute pouring out her ears--especially after Kevin has convinced her to change her 'do, her pixie cut distinguishing her from the abundantly tressed women of Hong Kong. To dares to pit Chi-Yan against a royal flush of bustier more extravagantly sexy women (most of them Sean's mistresses or prospective girlfriends), confident that her expressive spark will make her stand out; I think he's right, and she does.

Wu's Kevin is Chi-Yan's soulmate: he's down but willing to change--more to the point willing to change for her. If we're talking types Kevin is the sensitive artistic male nostalgic for specific objects, specific moments in time: a casually gifted pet frog; a night of deliberately aimless carousing; a woman's shadow caught in spotlight as she looks back to speak words of encouragement. Suddenly Kevin is willing to quit drinking and take up in earnest his former profession (Award-winning architect--who knew?); he's the perfect man, so perfect you wonder if there's such a thing as too perfect (it may be his only flaw). Chi-Yan expresses similar doubts; her head tells her Kevin is the one but her heart tells her otherwise.

As the more flamboyant 'otherwise' Louis Koo has in my book the most interesting role: he plays Sean like Richard III wooing Lady Anne, and--Shakespeare knowing the intricate perversities of human nature--succeeds beyond all expectations. Sean sleeps around--he reneges on their first date in favor of a fuller-figured woman and all-you-can-eat oysters at the Four Seasons--and he's unapologetic about it, mostly. Unlike the terminally dull Nick Young in that more recent Asian romcom whose only apparent flaw is his Norman Bates-level mother fixation, Sean is a genuine asshole and knows it; women fling the profanity at him all the time. In a crucial scene he admits to being one, even halfheartedly defends himself ("there are two kinds of people in the world: those who sleep around and those who wish they did"). He struggles with his vices and Chi-Yan can see him struggling and despite his faults can't help but feel for him: he's trying to be a better man, a work in progress if you like. "Who knows?" you can almost hear Chi-Yan whisper to herself: "The right woman might make a difference."

Plus Sean knows how to flirt. Sure he spends serious money to win Chi-Yan over but it's the way he spends--with subversive wit and a deft sense of timing--that keeps him a serious contender in her eyes: if they're to have a relationship (she imagines) he'll at least keep her on her toes. 

Speaking of toes the director does the same to his audience by keeping all three lovers in relative equidistance. Sean keeps spotting Chi-Yan through bus windshields; later they engage in sexy flirting through office windows. Kevin is a relative latecomer but also a quick study who (being an architect) understands angles and perspectives and the value of judiciously angled lighting (when he mugs for Chi-Yan it's on a dramatically lit stage, like a veteran prestidigitator). 

Mention must be made of the way To uses his Hong Kong and Suzhou locations. That more recent movie may have 30 million dollars more money to make Singapore look glamorous--drone shots, nightlit structures, firework displays--but To does more with less, turning (with the help of cinematographers Cheng Siu-Keung and To Hung-mo) Hong Kong into a lover's wonderland, all gleam and glitter and glass through which you might glimpse--reflected or displayed within--your true love. 

Perhaps the oldest problems in the genre of romantic comedy (or to use the newer in my opinion more repulsive term 'romcom') is coming up with a fresh way to keep lovers temporarily apart, divided, walled off, making the moment of contact all the more memorable. The Fantasticks literally used a wall; Shakespeare resorted to the even simpler device of a balcony. To pulls back further: a few hundred feet between buildings and two thicknesses of glass, with post-it notes employed to funny sexy effect. Yes the film is shallow as a puddle but this form of long-distance lovemaking I submit is To's most evocative contribution to the genre: it says we're increasingly being separated by class and distance in this increasingly urban jungle, despite being connected--or because we're so connected--by telecommunication devices, that we're somehow substituting electronic linkage with physical and emotional intimacy. Perhaps the best way to make contact--to break through the digital walls we build around us--is through images and ideas, expressed through the simplest of means, like post-it notes. Or a frog.

About that damned frog, as unabashed a fairy-tale metaphor as any I've seen in recent movies--it's so funny and effective and surprisingly poignant (the ugly amphibian transformed into princely pet) I'm surprised frogs don't overpopulate romcom movies like a biblical plague. But then (as Kevin knew all along, and Chi-Yan and Sean ultimately realize with regards to her lovers) this frog is special, worth treasuring, one-of-a-kind; there can be no other. And there can only be one Don't Go Breaking My Heart.  

First published in Businessworld 9.7.18

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