Far too many punters insert the word “action” after “Hong Kong”, and only define the territory’s output by flying kicks and boiling lead; while many mainstream filmgoers might turn their nose up at Hong Kong films for exactly the same reason. Peter Chan’s romance Comrades: Almost a Love Story bucks all such trends, being equal to the greatest dramas from any country.
Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai feature as mainlanders who have come to Hong Kong; she wants to get rich, and he is just happy enough getting by. The film is scored to the much-loved music of Chinese songstress Theresa Tang, and indeed her life and death become central to the events of the film.
This is one of the great Maggie Cheung performances, although that’s a hard list to narrow down; but her determination to succeed however and wherever drives the film, and the POV shots from her ATM stick in your mind forever after when you’re plugging in your PIN code and peering hopefully at the green LED readout.
The greater surprise is Leon Lai. Often accused of being a bland actor, here he shows again that he is capable of an impressive turn in the hands of an impressive director (in fact, for an actor much dismissed, he still manages to feature in three of the greatest Hong Kong films ever — Comrades, Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels and Johnnie To’s A Hero Never Dies). He provides a counterbalance, someone who was come to Hong Kong not for himself, but to raise money for his marriage. Also look out for ex-pat Aussie Chris Doyle in a rare in front of the camera role as an English teacher. (The film was shot by Jingle Ma, who does a job worthy of Doyle himself.)
The search for the perfect life takes the characters far afield and over a few years, from China to Hong Kong to New York, from together to apart from that-would-be-telling; yet over this scope, the film is filled with so many moments of perfect intimacy that it stays with you forever.