Comrades, Almost a Love Story
Not rated, 98 min. Directed by Peter Chan Ho-San. Starring Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai, Shu Qi.
Is there anything Maggie Cheung can't do? Her recent turn in Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep was a startling turnabout from the standard Golden Harvest and Hong Kong roles that fans have come to know her for. But even while trading body blows with Jackie Chan and the Heroic Trio, Cheung's formidable acting skills have consistently shone through. Comrades, Almost a Love Story is no exception, though viewers may want to bring their schmaltz meters and a spare hanky or two to this well-done and elegiacally engaging film. Cheung plays Qiao, a young mainlander who seeks her fortune in the immensely profitable world of Hong Kong circa 1986. Quite literally at the same time, the idealistic young Jun (Lai), decked out in his best Mao threads, pursues the same goal, albeit with the initial goal of one day sending for his girlfriend who has opted to remain behind in their village Tianjin. Soon after, the pair meet at the McDonald's where Qiao bides her time as a countergirl. Jun, eager to attain a decent job and work his way out of his Aunt Rosie's brothel, accepts Qiao's quietly offered help (he's stymied by the language difficulties between the mainland and the island), and before you can say “isosceles love triangle,” the pair are spending all their time together, renting the occasional room in one of the city's many “love hotels” and heading toward what appears to be both economic and emotional bliss. As with seemingly all HK films of this stripe, however, it is not to be. Jun's girlfriend arrives, there is a marriage, the stock market collapses, and a pudgy, low-rent gangster vies for Qiao's attentions. Throughout it all (Chan's film spans a full decade), Jun and Qiao never officially fall for each other, though it's obvious from that first hesitant glance at McDonald's that their passion is the tragic heart of this epic tearjerker. Filled with achingly beautiful cinematography and some of the most godawfully sappy musical cues yet recorded, Comrades frequently veers from old-school Hollywood treacle to profoundly affecting modern romance in the space of a single scene. A moderately amusing subplot having to do with Aunt Rosie's long-ago love for William Holden at first seems little more than emotional window-dressing, but it turns out to pack a solid, eye-watering wallop in the third act. Also, Jun and Qiao's John Woo-esque habit of just missing each other by one, fateful moment is played straight time and again; it shouldn't work at all, but more often than not it does. Cheung proves once again that she is, far and away, the most gifted of all of the new breed of Asian actresses, revealing more in one achingly beautiful glance than most of her contemporaries -- Asian, Anglo, or otherwise -- can in a full two-hour film. This is some breathtaking work, and although Comrades 'plot may seem strained at times, it's more than worth a look, if only to reacquaint oneself with Cheung's profound style of acting.
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