June 30, 2016
A Tale of Three Cities – Hong Kong, 2015
It’s always good to see Tang Wei on the silver screen. For those of you unfamiliar with Ms. Wei, she was the breakout star of Ang Lee’s 2007 film, Lust, Caution, and as a reward for giving a tough and challenging performance, she was banned from making films in China. Officially, it was said that she had made being a traitor look too glamorous. To his credit, Ang Lee attempted to intervene on her behalf, but it would still be three years before Ms. Wei would appear in another film. By that time, she had become a resident of Hong Kong, and as such, she began working regularly. Since then, she has made 14 films, not all of which have been released with subtitles, and so for me, A Tale of Three Cities is a chance to catch up with an actress that greatly impressed me with her screen debut. I am pleased to be able to tell you that Ms. Wei is indeed wonderful in the film. Thus, I feel somewhat guilty for not enjoying A Tale of Three Cities as much as I’d hoped to.
My problems with the film begin with its opening scene, for it promises something that the film has no interest in delivering. In the scene, a young boy follows a dog which has the almost skeletal remains of a fish between its teeth. What’s left of that fish will eventually find its way into the boy’s mouth, yet in the blink of an eye, it is being devoured by a older man who has no qualms about taking food from a child. The scene is powerful, for in just a few seconds, it has made it clear just what kind of world we are observing – one that is broken morally and where people are lost, one that, in the quest for mere survival, has lost the ability to sympathize and take care of each other. It’s a stunning way to begin a film. The problem is that what the film does from there has been done many times before, and in truth, we’ve seen it done much better.
Director Mabel Cheung, like many other directors of movies set during these times, aims to start the film off with a bang, and indeed it does. Bombs explode, buildings collapse, and everywhere there are the screams of those trying to flee. It should be riveting, yet Cheung films it as if she were filming a movie of the week, replete with slow motion and a soaring musical score designed to tug on the heartstrings through its high-pitched violins and the rest of its emotionally manipulative high notes. I’ve said it again, but it bears repeating: Truly sad or tragic moments do not require orchestras to tell us how we should be feeling.
The film then fast forwards to 1951, and instead of exploring the woman from the previous scene, the audience is introduced to a chef named Daolong (Sean Lau) in Hong Kong. Eventually, he pays someone to pen a letter for him, and we hear him implore a woman – his wife, he tells the man - to join him in Hong Kong. It’s not hard to predict that the woman he is writing to is the same woman from the first scene; thus, if you’ve seen a lot of movies, you likely know what’s coming next – the flashback, that great ruiner of suspense. And so we follow these characters back to the days of the Second World War and watch as they meet, fall in love, and struggle to be together due to war, tradition, and prejudice. With each successive scene, we are brought closer to post-World War II Hong Kong and an almost certain harrowing dash for freedom.
The film is not without compelling moments, for the characters at the heart of the film are living during divided times. China is at war with not only Japan, but also itself, and no sooner does one battle end than another one begins between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. A scene at a railway station swarmed with people trying to find passage to Hong Kong is rather intense, and one in which a group of gangsters – including Daolong - try to avoid detection by laying low in the middle of a hornet’s nest is quite ingenious. Yet the film’s core story remained curiously uninvolving. Perhaps it was because I knew nothing would happen to them that moments that were intended to be emotionally charged rang false. Or perhaps it was the characters’ odd courtship, for in truth there’s nothing concrete that binds them other than rifle shooting, their mutual belief that a parent should introduce children to alcohol at a very young age, music, and their habit of leaving their children with other people for long stretches of time. This may be enough for some people, but I felt that the film never truly established their initial connection, and without that, it was hard to completely invest in what followed.
Then there’s the little matter of the lack of suspense. Once the film establish that Daolong is in Hong Kong in 1951 and that he’s writing letters to his wife asking her to join him, that pretty much ends the notion that misfortune will befall either of these characters. That means that when he is shot later in the film (but earlier than 1951), there’s no suspense, and when Yuerong (Wei) is forced to flee from men intent on kidnapping her and forcing her into marriage, it is clear that she is in no real danger, either. Therefore, I watched the film with the kind of casual impatience that comes when you know more than the characters on the screen do and all you can do is wait for the film to get to the part that wasn’t made obvious in the film’s opening scenes. Unfortunately, that means waiting at least an hour and forty minutes.
I waited, but I’d have a hard time recommending that anyone else does. (on DVD in Region 3)
2 and a half stars
*A Tale of Three Cities is in Mandarin and Cantonese.
*The film is apparently based on the real-life story of Jackie Chan’s parents.