Anthony Wong Chau-SangLawrence NgSteven MaCathy Tsui
When a Man Loves a Woman
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Ally Wong
Writer: Alex Pao
Actor: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Lawrence Ng, Steven Ma, Maggie Cheung Ho Yee, Cathy Tsui, Ki Yan Lam, Ting Yip Ng
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Format: 88 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 14 February 2012
It's a confused Hong Kong film that starts out with action cliches, then halfway through dumps everything we've been watching for the sake of a delicate romantic triangle. I eventually liked it, but it's messy. This is a film whose three-act structure might as well be divided by the Iron Curtain. The first two acts even have a mostly different cast, except for the crossover character of the assassin (Lawrence Ng).
Act One stars Steven Ma as a young cop having a bad day. He's on duty with his partner when he remembers that he's forgotten to buy a present for his girlfriend (Cathy Tsui) and bunks off to do so. When he comes back, bullets are flying. This doesn't go down well with his colleagues, while his superior orders him to have nothing to do with the case and take some time off. Steven Ma isn't in the mood to obey orders. It turns out that his partner was banking half a million's worth of bonds that no one knew about, after which Ma finds himself being framed and Tsui's having to hold cops at gunpoint.
The interest value of this is inversely proportional to its action content. I quite liked the characters. I wanted to see more of Ma and Tsui, especially given the movie's title. However as a "cop investigates corruption" movie, it's by the numbers. There's a little of that humour you can get in Hong Kong movies that makes them feel like Children's BBC rejects, e.g. the moment where Ma and his partner meet while they're talking on their mobiles to each other. There's an action scene in which Lawrence Ng walks up to three men as they're sitting at a table outside a cafe and starts shooting... whereupon everyone manages to have a lengthy, exciting shoot-out at point-blank range. Does anyone ever reload? Are you kidding? Ng later has Ma and Tsui at gunpoint, only to fire repeatedly at their feet and only start throwing explosives once they've had a chance to escape heroically to safety.
In other words, it's lazy and mediocre. It's also efficient enough in its way and perfectly watchable, but it's still the kind of thing that's at best diverting rather than good. You might keep watching if it came on TV, but you also wouldn't much mind if someone changed the channel halfway through.
Ma and Tsui find their way to a beachside bar called the Cococabana, which is owned by Maggie Cheung Ho Yee (no, not the Maggie Cheung you know, but a different one). We never see any customers, but maybe it's the off-season. Her employees are Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, who's a lumpish half-Caucasian who quietly loves her, and another lad who can't talk. We've reached Act Two. This is where the story slows right down and we forget about all that action nonsense. Lawrence Ng occasionally shows up, but only in his own plot thread because as far as the Cococabana's concerned, he walked away five years ago and never came back. Cheung is still in love with him. Wong is an old friend. This part of the film, in contrast to what went before, feels real. I liked lots of things here, like the gun-and-jukebox scene and the slowly unfolding relationship of Wong and Cheung. Wong in particular is lovely, with his stoicism and willingness to put himself out for Cheung. He's the opposite of a pretty boy and she's weary before her time, so together they have an autumnal charm.
Almost everyone is tied into this theme, for what it's worth. As well as Wong/Cheung and Ma/Tsui, even Ng himself has had opportunities for romance... but when everyone involved is a professional killer, you keep your distance and never let your guard down. It's sad, despite his day job.
Act Three brings it all together. I'd started wondering if Ma and Tsui were going to show up again at all, but then the story throws everything up in the air for an action-packed last twelve minutes. There's lots of gunplay, which is actually more involving than you'd think because of all the character business going on. Underneath the bullets and explosions, it's almost mournful. I'm not convinced that Act One's plot threads all get tied up, e.g. Ma's partner's half a million. But what the hell. It works better than I'd have expected and it has morally ambiguous allegiances that look like cliches but aren't. "Cover me."
The most famous name here is Anthony Wong, who's one of Hong Kong's best-regarded actors. He's half-English, although I thought it was 100%, and he's played a lot of dark and villainous characters in his time because of that. Apparently he was bullied as a child due to his racial heritage and he's put a lot of that into his work. Here though he's sweet. A bit weird, but he and Cheung end up being charming together. As for the direction, there are some occasionally distracting or clumsy shots, but at least that means this isn't just point-and-shoot. The distracting bits would include overhead shots in an interview, or staccato micro-cuts for a significant reunion. The cinematography looked a bit cheap to me, to be honest, but I didn't hate it.
Not to be confused with the 1994 Meg Ryan film, or indeed the other film of the same title from the same year. 2000's other When a Man Loves a Woman, for what it's worth, is Italian.
Overall, I tolerated the beginning and liked the rest. I like the character work and undertones in the bullet-ridden ending. I like the blindness. I like Wong and Cheung, plus all the other troubled couples who are extending the film's theme and title. It's in no way brilliant, but I'm mildly fond of it.