Critics went crazy for it, but the box office was disappointing given the star calibre of the cast. (In Hong Kong cinema, these are massive names.) I'm on the side of the Philistines.
It was ground-breaking, mind you. Hong Kong cinema at the time wasn't known for this kind of arthouse movie. Nevertheless it's routinely included in Hong Kong critics' top tens and won a ton of prizes, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Art Direction and Cinematography at the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards. It effectively established a new genre and even managed to get its title parodically namechecked in The Days of Being Dumb, which even also starred Tony Leung but to me looks more like a lampoon of 1980s Hong Kong triad movies.
It's beautiful and exquisitely subtle. I don't mind the lack of action, but unfortunately I had not the slightest interest in the characters. Leslie Cheung is the main offender. He's a pretty-boy thug who I'm pretty sure is a psychopath, but a really boring one. He picks up women and treats them like dirt. He's uninterested in them. He barely even seems to notice what they do or say. He'll answer direct questions, albeit in the dispassionate manner of a serial killer, but otherwise he behaves as if he's just waiting for them to walk out of the door. It would explain everything if he had a collection of severed heads in his basement, but he doesn't. He's merely a null on legs.
So I didn't care about Cheung, which is unfortunate because he's the main character. I didn't hate him, mind you. I simply didn't care whether he lived or died. Eventually my eyes started sliding off him, as if he was a hole that had been cut in the movie in place of something of human interest.
There are other characters, mind you. Some even seem nice. Unfortunately most of them are female and defining themselves by their attachments to Cheung. In fairness I didn't find this hard to believe, since women without taste can be found all over the world. I merely found it impossible to care about anyone so stupid. What's the point? Are these people masochists? In their spare time, do they smash their heads against brick walls? Why should anyone want to throw themselves at this deep-frozen love rat who's probably going to end up dismembering your corpse while he wears your freshly skinned face as a mask? I've seen it suggested that this is a film about rejection and that makes sense to me, since Cheung hardly says a single word to his women that's not effectively "go away". "Do you love me?" "No." "Am I pretty?" "No." "I'm going to walk away." "Don't come back."
Thus Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau are both idiots, because they love... hang on, I'm going to have to refer to our lead Cheung by his character's name (Yuddy) because the cast's full of Cheungs. Anyway, those ladies are both strong actresses and well worth watching when they're not sharing screen time with Yuddy. Rebecca Pan is the ageing ex-prostitute who's Yuddy's adopted mother and with whom he has a hostile but slightly Oedipal relationship. Andy Lau is a policeman and actually a nice guy, while Jacky Cheung is Yuddy's childhood friend. Not a lot happens among them, but there are rich undercurrents of desire, longing and unrequited love. It's all in what might have happened, not what did. You've got to watch the subtext. I'm sure this film would have been a fascinating and fractally rewarding artistic experience if only I'd been able to give a monkey's arse about it.
Kar Wai Wong had planned for this to be the first film in a series. That's why Tony Leung Chiu-Wai shows up for no reason in the last scene of the film. Indeed eventually it became so, but unfortunately its poor box office returns meant that that sequel didn't appear for another ten years, with In the Mood for Love
. (That one's much more watchable, by the way.) Four years later he completed the trilogy with 2046
, which I'll be watching even though I'm less confident about the prospect than I was yesterday. Characters cross over between the films, although unfortunately Leslie Cheung committed suicide in 2003 and so wasn't able to be among them. (Ironically Kar Wai Wong had at one point been planning to include him in these films again, but as a ghost.)
Things I actually enjoyed in this film would include Yuddy's relationship with Rebecca Pan and especially their big conversation about his real mother. That was good. They aren't making each other happy, but at least there's a comprehensible reason for their relationship. It also has a happier ending than In the Mood for Love
, although I say that as someone who dislikes Yuddy.
Is this film rubbish? Obviously not. It's been called a masterpiece and I don't know if I'd even disagree. Would I recommend it? Not with a gun to my head. I can appreciate its artistic qualities, but I suspect I was missing important stuff towards the end because I was struggling to care enough to watch properly. Maybe on a rewatch, I'd be able to find some human chink in Yuddy that would make the film watchable for me? There's a reason for his commitment phobia, for instance, which in turn would explain why he's such an unlikeable, peremptory cock.
Unfortunately this would mean rewatching the movie. I'll never know.