COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY
Directed by Peter Chan
Written by Ivy Ho
With Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai and Eric Tsang
Distributed by Rim Films
For years, I've been having dreams which take place in the same imaginary city. When I'm awake, I can't recall this city's details, but upon returning, I always recognize it again, even though it sometimes takes on the guise of a real city. These dreams may be one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to one of the main threads of 90s cinema. In some respects, the Toronto of Atom Egoyan's EXOTICA, the Paris of Claire Denis' I CAN'T SLEEP and Cédric Klapisch's WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, the Hong Kong of Wong Kar-Wai's CHUNG KING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS, the Taipei of Edward Yang's MAHJONG, the Teheran of Jafar Panahi's THE WHITE BALLOON and the Geneva of Krzysztof Kieslowksi's RED are all variations on the same city. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these films depict real cities (with the real problems of urban life), but these cities simultaneously function as fluid media: stomping ground for lonely obsessives, full of opportunities for potentially dangerous, potentially redemptive chance encounters. Even though COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY takes place in Hong Kong - a Hong Kong that isn't quite the same as Wong Kar-Wai's - and New York, its real setting often seems to be this apocryphal city.
Stunned that such an accessible film languished without an American distributor, I placed COMRADES in the "Where the fuck are the distributors?"addendum to my 1997 Top 10 list. As much as I like them, I can certainly understand why personal favorites like Otar Iosseliani's BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII or Naomi Kawase's SUZAKU didn't inspire the Weinsteins to roll out the checkbooks. COMRADES is a much different film: a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word, if there is one. It's now in a theatrical run at New YorkÕs Cinema Village, who first showed it last summer during their annual series of new Hong Kong films, but in a more logical world, it would be in wide release in arthouses across America.
The fact that this isn't the case says a lot about how xenophobic and unadventurous distributors like Fine Line and October have become. COMRADES isn't difficult to follow, nor is it full of political and historical references that only a native audience could understand. Still, it may be a tough sell to two of the major American audiences for Chinese films. With a few exceptions (like Stanley Kwan's ROUGE), the Hong Kong cult audience has usually preferred action or fantasy films to dramas, while the upscale arthouse audience would probably be more open to a period piece about color-coordinated oppression. As melodramatic as COMRADES sometimes is, there's nothing particularly campy, over-the-top or exotic about it. Like many Hong Kong films, it adapts American forms to a much different sensibility and set of concerns, balancing a celebration of wanderlust with an affirmation of the importance of roots and Chinese identity. Nevertheless, Frank Borzage or George Cukor might have filmed this same basic story with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan 60 years ago. In fact, COMRADES is the best recent example of The Kind Of Movie They Don't Make Anymore this side of TITANIC.
It begins with the arrival of a train in Hong Kong (the real significance of this opening won't be revealed until the final scene), bringing Xiaojun (Leon Lai) from his hometown (something of a backwater, even by the standards of mainland China) into the bustling metropolis. Although struggling to learn Cantonese, he gets a job delivering chicken and quickly befriends Qiao (Maggie Cheung), a McDonald's cashier who spends her spare time in a number of money-making schemes, including recruiting students for ESL classes (taught by cinematographer Christopher Doyle!), stock speculation and selling tapes of pop singer Teresa Tang. The two spend a rainy New Year's Eve in a street stall trying unsuccessfully to sell these tapes, and in the course of the evening, Qiao confesses that despite her hip veneer, she's also a recent immigrant from the mainland. That night, they wind up in bed, but they never really become lovers, partially because of Xiaojun's commitment to this girlfriend back home. He eventually becomes a chef, while she suffers from accumulating debt. (Wittily, her financial rise and fall are depicted from the P.O.V. of an ATM machine.) She gets a new job as a masseuse in a sleazy parlor and becomes involved with one of her clients, a gangster named Pao (Eric Tsang). She and Xiaojun gradually drift apart, but their paths still keep crossing, even after they both move to New York.
I've only seen one other Peter Chan film, HE'S A WOMAN, SHE'S A MAN, a rather lowbrow farce, inspired by VICTOR/VICTORIA, about an aspiring female pop singer who decides to disguise herself as a man. Nothing about HE'S A WOMAN, SHE'S A MAN led me to think that Chan could make a film as graceful as COMRADES. With one major exception, it contains no flashbacks, but much of it seems to be narrated from memory. (Lai conveys many of his first impressions of Hong Kong in letters to his girlfriend, and voice-over continues to play a substantial role in the film.) Chan skillfully evokes the way in which a first-time visitor might see urban street life as rhythmically off-kilter; there's a subtly dreamlike quality to the Hong Kong street scenes. The final half hour depends heavily on coincidences (characters suddenly noticing each other in the middle of rush-hour crowds, especially), but in this atmosphere, even the most melodramatic contrivances make perfect emotional sense. (As in RED, some of these coincidences are facilitated by technology; a window display of TV sets provides the final deus ex machina.)
French film theorist Raymond Bellour once suggested that narrative cinema is a machine for producing the couple. COMRADES bears this thesis out, but it also spends much of its time putting obstacles in their way. (Of course, there wouldn't be much of a story if Xiaojun and Qiao immediately wound up together.) Some of the obstacles are personal, some geographical, but many stem from the cultural dislocation caused by the Asian "economic miracle" of the 80s. It would be easy to treat Qiao's hustling contemptuously, especially since her relationship with Pao is tinged with overtones of prostitution, but COMRADES is generous enough not to. Its regard on the "economic miracle" is a great deal less severe than that of Edward Yang or Tsai Ming-Liang. Rather than using extremes of speed and disorientation as building blocks, as many recent Asian art films do, it describes them from a calm, detached perspective. Critic Michael Atkinson aptly compared it to Jacques Demy; like Demy's LOLA and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, it's filled with melancholy and nostalgia (for the evanescence of the present, if nothing else), but these emotions are also cut with optimism. In its final moments, COMRADES toys with the utopian fantasy that lurks behind films as different as SUNRISE, CELINE & JULIE GO BOATING and FALLEN ANGELS: a vision of the city as a playground for lovers and dreamers, rather than just a place of commerce. This optimism shouldn't be overstated - the city is also a place where tragedy can strike - but its utopian possibilities remain an open question.