If the idea of one of those ponderous European romantic dramas – only Asian! – appeals to you, then look no further than Stanley Kwan’s disappointing latest effort. A woman leads her life (which is, naturally, only ever defined in terms of her relationships with men) set against the background of this event and that event; and if it sounds like I am failing to pay proper respect to the impact of World War 2 and the Cultural Revolution on Shanghai, it is only because the movie does too.
A Hong Kong/China co-production, Everlasting Regret initially seems quite ambitious, what with the location and time-span of its premise, and the stunt-casting of Cantopop and rom-com cutie Sammi Cheng in the fairly formidable lead role. The idea of telling the story of a city undergoing enormous change through the lives of a handful of its residents is of course not a new one, and when it works it works beautifully, but this is certainly not in anywhere near the class of Yasujiro Ozu or Hou Hsiao-hsien who have both mastered those types of movies.
The doubtlessly budget-related inability to physically recreate the old Shanghai on a large scale inevitably focuses the camera on the people rather than the city, but instead of acting as an interesting stylistic restriction, it robs the movie of the epic scope that its premise cries out for. What you’re left with is essentially a series of glittery party scenes, tame bedroom scenes, bitter break-up scenes and quiet introspective scenes, many of which try to invoke the airy slow-motion romanticism of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love with only partial success. It’s a good thing most of the people are so pretty.
Cheng, her soft features made more angular by a series of fairly groovy period hairstyles, acquits herself with unspectacular dignity: the performance won’t lose her any fans, but nor is it the step forward it was pretty clearly supposed to be. Her character also ages unrealistically well given the movie’s time-span, but who’s going to argue with that? The main reason to watch the movie, though, is Tony Leung Ka-Fai, continuing his run of movie-stealing performances as Qiyao’s mentor and would-be lover, a role he fills with that ever-reliable charisma.
But it is the absence of societal context that bothers me most about the movie. Is this what we are destined for with Hong Kong/China co-productions? Movies that ostensibly deal with serious events, but don’t really? Surely this cannot be passed off as a deliberately “clever” storytelling device — i.e. pointing to the obvious by not pointing to it at all — every single time. Sometimes ignoring something is really just ignoring something.