May 31, 2018
Love Without End – Hong Kong, 1970
There’s a moment in the Shaw Brothers Love Without End when a man stands at the back of a night club watching the woman he loves and with whom he’d like to reconcile sing that most popular of Chinese songs Wang Bu Liao. For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it is essentially about not being able to forget both the good and bad times after a break-up. It ends with the lines “Never can I forget the bitter taste of parting, and never can I forget the emotions of pining for you.” The song is perfectly appropriate for the moment even though by then we’ve seen this particular woman sing it several times already. The peculiar thing about the scene is the look on the man’s face. Here he is hearing the love of his life crooning about love as if it were a chapter of her life that had been permanently closed and the look on his face is not one that reflects contemplation or joy or heartbreak. No, the man just looks bitter. It is as if he’s thinking, “How dare you?” Which would be fine if that indeed were what the following scene expounded on. Yet there he is a moment later proclaiming his eternal love for her and begging her to stay with him.
The character, Tang Pengnan, is played by Yun Ling, and his performance is a big part of the reason that Love Without End works much less effectively than it should. For one, I know love at first sight. I know the feeling of being frozen in a moment, unable to look away from someone as the mind races and the heart begins to go aflutter. I have experienced the sensation that comes from understanding the urgency of the moment and the feeling that the slightest hesitation could result in a lifetime of regret. And Tang’s reaction was not love at first sight. It was a moment of warmth, there’s no doubt about that, yet that intoxicating feeling likely came more from the alcohol he had just consumed that from being struck suddenly by Cupid’s arrow. In fact, the next day he can hardly remember what happened the night before. I remember the first time I saw my great love like it was yesterday, and it has been over twenty years. That’s love at first sight.
And this is a death sentence in a film such as this one, for if you don’t buy two characters’ claims of sudden love, then the film falls apart, for the two of them don’t spend time getting to know each other. They just start dating. And then they stop. And then they start again. And then one of them runs off to Japan with someone else in exchange for a loan that will keep the other’s business afloat. Wait, what? And then that character is arrested on suspicion of smuggling illegal good into the country. Really, that happens. It’s just one of many storylines that is introduced and then dropped almost immediately. And in a way this makes sense. If a movie is going to go all Nicholas Sparks on us, it can’t get caught up in any details that would slow its path to emotionally manipulative melodrama.
So, the seedy parts of working as a singer in a club hinted at early in the film? Don’t give them a second thought. The weight Tang feels after his father dies and his business is in financial trouble? Resolved in a scene and a half. And the creepy, wealthy customer that sets his sights on Qingqing? Disposed of before you have the sense to ask yourself why a seasoned criminal would be so obvious in his methods. No, this is a film that would rather lay on the sad stuff, to give a woman a chance at happiness only to then take it away if one of the most telegraphed ways ever. Oh, and there’s the film’s other Sparks moment, when Tang misinterprets his love’s motivation and yells to her, “You’re just like the rest of them!” No, she isn’t, and in movies such as this one, they never are.
In the end, what we have in Love Without End is a love story that never convinces viewers that the two lovers are indeed head over heels for each other. Instead, we get a series of aborted story lines that each could have evolved into something interesting, and a conclusion that is both predictable and wrong in its message. In reality, a man like Tang would be haunted by Qingqing’s final act, much like the boy is in Cinema Paradiso. Here, he just shouts out the equivalent of “How can I ever thank you for walking out of me?” Yeah, that happens.
If there is a silver lining to watching Love Without End, it is being introduced to Jenny Hu, who plays Tang’s love interest, He Qingqing. Hu has a natural grace in front of the camera, and she puts on quite an impressive display of emotion in the film. Even in scenes that rang false, she was enough elevate the material and gave it much more credibility that it would otherwise have had. It’s not enough for me to recommend the film, yet it is more than enough for me to search out Hu’s other films. I can only hope they made better use of her talents and matched her characters with love interests whose feelings seemed genuine. Here, the love is not without end; after all, cinematic love cannot believably last forever if it never convincingly begins. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Love Without End is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.