Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review - Behind the Yellow Line

December 3, 2015

Behind the Yellow Line – Hong Kong, 1984

When I first began watching films from Hong Kong, they had a terrible reputation. There was a belief that they were poorly dubbed (an ongoing gag in the Police Academy movies), that the scripts were often lacking in character development and rife with moments of such incredulity that dramas unintentionally became comedies, and that producers of the film had so little commitment to foreign audiences that subtitles were often impossible to understand. Taylor Wong’s schizophrenic 1984 film Behind the Yellow Line does nothing to dispel these beliefs.

The film stars the late Leslie Cheung as a social misfit named Paul Chan, and in its opening moments, we see him trying his best to get to work on his first day at a new job. The scene is somewhat promising, for it is reminiscent of the kinds of scenes that often signal that we’re in for a screwball comedy, one replete with physical gags and humorous facial expressions, both of which Mr. Cheung could do extremely well. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is during this mad rush to get to work that Paul bumps into a young woman named Monica (Maggie Cheung), and it is obvious from the start that he has fallen victim to one of Cupid’s arrows. So just what does a shy, socially awkward man like Paul do when love finds him? Well, in this film, he acts like an immature high school student – he follows her from a distance, ducks when she looks in his direction, and becomes tongue-tied whenever he has an actual opportunity to speak to her. It’s as if he has become an adolescent stalker.

Just why Monica doesn’t report him to the subway’s security detail is beyond me, but perhaps it has something to do with her own lack of good judgment. In an early scene, we learn that she is in a relationship with her boss, a married man, and is therefore justifiably miserable. Eventually, Paul and Monica begin dating. The problem is that the film never truly establishes their connection. Instead of dialogue that addresses the awkwardness of their initial meeting and Paul’s subsequent childish behavior, we get a long montage of boyfriend-girlfriend moments that is meant to placate any skepticism on the audience’s part. Just trust us, the film seems to be saying. They really do like each other. Well, of course he does, but why does she? But I digress. Soon Paul is talking about marriage and buying a house, while also displaying moments of jealousy and pouting when he doesn’t get his way. In truth, I never rooted for the relationship, and buy-in is a must for a film of this sort to work.

Had the film devoted more time to building up the relationship, it may have been able to overcome its earlier deficiencies. However, it deviates from the romance far too often, and in these moments, its attempts at quirkiness and comedy simply fall flat. In one of its attempts to be humorous, the film adds a completely unnecessary character named Anita (Anita Mui). In Anita’s first scene, she embarrasses Paul on the Hong Kong subway by pretending that she is a sex worker and Paul one of her patrons. Why the film’s five writers thought such moments would be funny is beyond me. From then on, Anita pops up at the most inconvenient times and the most annoying of locations - in a department store, during a driving test, even at his home. I suppose Anita is meant to provide an alternative to Monica, yet the film never firmly establishes her feelings for Paul, not does it give Paul any reason to like her.

However, the film’s most egregious sin is Monica’s inconsistencies. The film makes Monica a character that blows hot and cold, one that can go from loving to destructive in the blink of an eye. In fact, in one scene, we see her lying next to the man she supposedly loves and intends to marry, and in just a few seconds, she’s breaking up with him. It’s as though no one associated with this film had ever heard of build up or establishing a motivation.

Here are a few other things that simply didn’t work for me – jokes about gorilla urine, conversations between Paul’s parents concerning their son’s sex habits, the threat of date rate used as comedy, break-ups that occur only because one person stands and watches the other person leave while looking dumbfounded and petrified, rudeness used as a device for humor, and the film’s entire insane finale, which is supposed to show once and for all how destined they are to be together. Instead, it comes across as slightly cruel and somewhat pointless. After all, even after it, I still didn’t care about their relationship.

All of this makes Behind the Yellow Line a slog to get through. It is a film that never truly finds its footing and seems content with characters that were not fully thought out or realized. And this is a missed opportunity. Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui are all talented performers, as they have demonstrated in other films. Behind the Yellow Line simply never gives them anything to work with. Sadly, they seem to be playing caricatures rather than characters, and no amount of hard work on their part can make up for that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

*Behind the Yellow Line is in Cantonese with English subtitles. The subtitles are not always understandable.

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