Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
For his final film before launching the Milkyway Image studio, Johnnie To took a super-generic script, applied a Steven Spielberg visual aesthetic, and almost made an FW Murnau movie out of it. A rarity for To, a period film, a romance set during the second World War, with Andy Lau as a pilot who crash lands in a remote village and is nursed back to health by Jacklyn Wu (these two stars are the only connection to the other A Moment of Romance films: in Hong Kong, spiritual sequels can be numbered as actual sequels, they need not be in any other way related). They fall in love and when he returns to the war effort, she follows him to the big city, splitting the film neatly into country/city halves like Crocodile Dundee.
Shot by Poon Hang-sang (Centre Stage, Peking Opera Blues, The Heroic Trio), with lush golds and blues, greens and reds, low shots of the horizon, the rising and setting sun backlighting archetypal silhouettes (farmers, soldiers) like Spielberg at his most Fordian (looking back to Empire of the Sun and ahead to War Horse), the dark interiors slashed by overexposed whites bursting through open windows (anticipating Lincoln and Bridge of Spies). With Spielberg, these choices carry a thematic weight, the light of truth obscured by the maneuverings of politics (or whatever), but with To the light is elemental: the distance of history and the blur of romance simply makes the world more vibrant.
The best sections of the film are almost entirely dialogue free: Andy and Jacklyn awkwardly dancing on the wing of plane, Andy’s desperate efforts to drive Jacklyn away to save her having to mourn him after a doomed mission, Jacklyn desperately clearing a runway when everyone else has given up hope. The film falters when it tries to relate plot, cheap obstacles to love in the form of an arranged marriage and a snobby mother have no weight and are easily dispatched, as if To and his team had no faith a little interest in conventional dramatics. Instead, long sections of the film are carried by the images and the music (by longtime To collaborator Raymond Wong, not the actor producer Raymond Wong, the other one, doing his best John Williams impression). At it’s best, the movie approaches the swooning style of the late silent era.
Structurally the film should be a Murnauvian study in opposites: country/city, rich/poor, farmer/soldier, and the power of love to transcend such arbitrary distinctions. But it never quite gets there. I don’t think the fault is necessarily in the script (by Sandy Shaw and future Milkyway screenwriting workhorse Yau Nai-hoi) or the performances (though Lau seems extremely uncomfortable in the role, Wu is much much better). Rather, the film seems to be missing something essential from To: it just doesn’t feel like his film. He’s long been proud of the first A Moment of Romance, which he produced and has claimed majority credit for ever since. That one, directed by Benny Chan, feels much more like a To work than this. A visually lush (but not this lush) love story with Andy Lau as a doomed Triad with a motorcycle and Jacklyn Wu as the shy rich girl who loves him, that film plays like a full movie built out of the Sally Yeh musical sequences in The Killer, or say a higher-pitched As Tears Go By, ending with a crushing disaster, a frozen image of hopeless misery. Moment III though feels too safe, too happy, and not just because it doesn’t end sadly, rather because it never seems possible for it to end sadly. To romances always have a twist, a dark edge of randomness (and usually at least one death: see Yesterday Once More, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Romancing in Thin Air). Despite being set in a wartime filled with doomed pilots flying impossible missions, there’s never sense here of the potential for death, of the bleak reality of tragedy.