Romancing in Thin Air

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Well, April is rearing its head, and finally I get to watch a film that is an official 2012 release.  What’s more, it is a Johnnie To romance (one of those that he makes to fund his less box-office friendly Crime films), which are quite often rather good.  Plus it marks the comeback of one-time Queen of Hong Kong Cinema Sammi Cheng, so there is a fair bit to look forward to,  But, as ever, the big question is – will it deliver?

In “Romancing in Thin Air”, popular Hong Kong Film Star/Musician Michael (Louis Koo) is left jilted at the alter by his actress girlfriend (Gao Yuanyuan) and embarks on a China-wide drinking binge all over China.  He ends up in Shangri-la in Yunnan province (a mountainous region, hence the ‘Thin Air’ of the title) where he meets Motel owner Sue (Sammi Cheng).  Sue reluctantly helps him get on his feet, although she is dealing with the 7 year disappearance of her husband who went into the woods to find a lost child and never returned.  However, it turns out that she is actually a huge fan of Michael (she is number 33 in his fan club), which explains her protective attitude towards him, and slowly a romance starts to blossom.  However, once Michael is back on his feet, and the relationship looks like it is going to go somewhere, the final fate of her husband is revealed, driving them apart.  Michael reacts by directing a feature film about her story (also called “Romancing in Thin Air”, which is why you will see a ‘2’ in the Chinese title of the movie – it is like a remake of the in-film film.  Yep, it is Meta time) – but can this provide the closure Sue needs for her to finally accept Michael in her life?  And can the film itself soothe his own heart?

I really wanted to like this one.  I know To’s romantic comedies are a bit hit and miss, but a couple of them are my favourite films ever.  I also have a lot of time for Sammi Cheng, and it was nice to see her in front of the camera again, although this is a very different kind of performance from her.  Sadly though, I never really got engaged with not only the central romance, nor did the tragic back-story elicit those emotions I was hoping would be played.

Koo is an actor I can have mixed opinions on, but here I really liked his character.  He really is a decent man, who has been badly hurt, and it’s clear that the solace he finds in the bottle is not something easily solved by the love of another woman.  The comedy comes from his fish-out-of-water antics, and he is a very good physical comedian.  Even when he isn’t acting the bearded drunk, and is back on his feet again, you get the charisma of the guy shining through.

As I said earlier, this is a very different Sammi Cheng, and I think her time away has bought something new to her acting skills.  Her last couple of films tried to flex acting muscles she just didn’t have, which partially account for them being flops, but here she plays that depressed wife so well, waiting for a husband who she knows in her heart of hearts is never going to return.  The problem however is in the script, where apart from an extended flashback, we never really see what the unburdened Sue is like, and therefore never quite see what Michael sees in her, and therefore the connection with have through the Character’s romance is never realised.

The other characters are all very thinly drawn, Sammi’s friends are mostly one dimensional caricatures, only Crystal Huang’s Agent shines (albeit in one scene with very little dialogue).  Li Guangjie’s lost husband is totally bland – sure I get he is a basically decent if awfully shy man, but he is only defined by his shyness and eventually tragic sacrifice.

And then there is the ’clever’ part, where events are replayed through Michael’s film.  Which would possibly have been more effective if it wasn’t immediately adjacent to the flashback of the real events of the film.  It basically means we see pretty much the same story twice in rapid succession.  Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was a kind of smart way of two people to communicate with each other (the film star talking to his fan via the medium of film), but it was not quite used successfully, and moreover, it meant that the two characters were not actually dealing with issues face-to-face (Of course an alternative reading could be that some things are best left unspoken).  We then get a somewhat rushed conclusion, that whilst giving us some hope for the couple’s future, is not enough for the time the viewer has invested in the film. 

There is a nice moment in the film where Michael fixes Sue’s piano which is one of many possessions of her husband that she deliberately keeps just the way he left it (actually for the second time, but this is a more successful and sober attempt) – in which he explains to her that without the keys that are missing, this just is not a piano.  Its a metaphor for her life – that without fixing herself, she really does not have a chance of moving forward.  Sadly, those touching moments between the two are just too far apart for me to buy into their relationship – and most of the other moments are just her replaying memories with her husband (like the motorcycle ride).

It is a smart and gorgeous looking film, highlighting the snow filled landscape, in glorious widescreen.  That however, becomes part of the problem – visually, the film is very wide and sweeping, but this makes the characters very small, and I never really felt I was in the film amongst them, never really understanding them.  So whilst the central performances are more than fine, the problem is that it is pretty much un-engaging.  I did not find myself really caring about any of the characters, which is strange as it really tries to hook on a couple of pretty tragic events.  It isn’t a horrible film, but it certainly is not as good as it should be, nor as good as it thinks it is.  But it is still Mildly Recommended, if nothing more than to see the return of Sammi Cheng, and some beautiful wilderness.

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