last year, the Mainland Communist government finally lifted its strict
censorship of this ostensibly nonpolitical award-winning romantic vehicle for
Maggie Cheung. The prohibition never really made sense, so it was often chalked
up to Hong Kong-Mainland differences. However, it is easy to suspect the
characters’ sentimental affection for Taiwanese Mandarin singer Teresa Teng,
who was quite outspoken in her support for the Tiananmen Square democracy
protestors, had a direct bearing on the decision. As usual, the government
denied its people something good. Without question, Maggie Cheung gives a
career-defining performance in Peter Chan’s Comrades:
Almost a Love Story (trailer
which screens as part of the Metrograph’s retrospective series Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.
Xiao-jun has come to Hong Kong from the northern provinces to earn money, so he
can marry his hometown sweetheart. However, in 1986, the go-go mega-city is a
hard place for a guileless Mandarin speaker. It seems a bit easier for Li Qiao,
a brash, Cantonese fluent scammer from Guangzhou. Yet, life seems to be in the
habit of disappointing her. Initially, she assumes she will just make a quick
buck off the rube, referring him to an English tutorial school for a commission,
but somehow he sticks in her life.
start out as almost frienemies, but soon evolve into friends with benefits,
which causes the engaged Xiao-jun considerable guilt (and Li Qiao as well).
When Li’s intended finally joins him, Li Qiao duly befriends her. Of course,
fate, timing, and chaos involving her aging Triad sugar daddy constantly
conspire to keep the almost lovers separated.
just haven’t seen bittersweet until you have seen Comrades (a term used with some irony). The pseudo-couple experiences
dozens of near-misses, but Ivy Ho’s elegant screenplay never feels contrived.
Frankly, that really is how the world works when you are a marginalized
economic migrant. Yet, there is always something admirable about the Lis and
their friends, because they are so doggedly working to better their lives.
you have ever considered Cheung an icy screen presence, this is also the film
to melt your preconceptions. She just basically rips viewers hearts out as the
exponentially-more-vulnerable-than-she-lets-on Li Xiao. The chemistry she
shares with Leon Lai (as Xiao-jun) is absolutely devastating. Frankly, the same
can be said of her rapport with Eric Tsang as the mobbed-up Pao Au-yeung, which
is another reason why the film packs such a sustained emotional wallop. For
comic relief that naturally takes a melancholy turn, noted cinematographer
Christopher Doyle (working solely in front of the camera) steals several scenes
as Jeremy, the foul-mouthed English teacher.
The kicker is the lyrically romantic soundtrack,
featuring dozens of Teresa Teng’s fan favorite love songs and the dreamily
jazzy themes composed by Chiu Jun-fun and Chiu Tsang-hei. In a way, Comrades is a sweeping tale, encompassing
the Chinese immigrant experience in mid-1980s Hong Kong and mid-1990s New York,
but it also feels intoxicatingly hushed and intimate, thanks to Chan’s sensitive
but assured hand on the helm. It is a modern classic that is almost mandatory
for any Cheung retrospective (the same is probably true for Lai and Tsang).
Very highly recommended, Comrades: Almost
a Love Story screens this Saturday (12/18) at the Metrograph, as part of Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.
Labels: Christopher Doyle, Eric Tsang, Hong Kong Cinema, Leon Lai, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung at Metrograph, Teresa Teng