By Noel B. Vera
Don’t Go Breaking
(Dān Shēn Nán Nü)
Directed by Johnnie To
Available on Google Play
IF WE’RE TALKING lighthearted romantic fare involving pretty prosperous Asians, I don’t see why we need to go all the way to Hollywood when Hong Kong has been doing perfectly fine for years.
Johnnie To’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Dān Shēn Nán Nü, 2011) doesn’t make the mistake of pitting a girl against her man’s family—a decision that can only lead to pseudo-profundity and tears—but opts instead for the classic love triangle: Chi-Yan (Mainland actress Gao Yuanyuan) has just come painfully off from a relationship of seven years; Sean (Louis Koo) is the CEO who first spots her while sitting in his gleaming Audi peering into a bus window. Later, the upset Chi-Yan (she’d been forced off the bus by her ex) unthinkingly crosses a street—a big no-no in heavily trafficked Hong Kong. She’s saved by Kevin (Daniel Wu), a bearded alcoholic who takes the trouble to stop oncoming cars while he picks up her dropped notes and papers.
Of course Chi-Yan has to choose: true heart or bad boy? To’s achievement is to make the choice a genuine head-scratcher, as one man or the other demonstrates his charm and ingenuity and determination to the hapless girl. Gao’s Chi-Yan has cute coming out her ears—especially after Kevin has convinced her to change her do, her pixie cut standing out against the elaborately long tresses of most Hong Kong women. To dares to pit Chi-Yan against a royal flush of bustier and more extravagantly sexy women (most of them Sean’s mistresses or prospective girlfriends), confident that her expressive spark will make her stand out; I think he’s right, and she does.
Wu’s Kevin is Chi-Yan’s soulmate: he’s down and low but willing to change—more to the point, willing to change for her. If we’re talking types, Kevin is the sensitive artistic male nostalgic for fixed moments in time: a night of deliberately aimless carousing to start a new life, a casually gifted pet frog, a woman’s shadow caught in the spotlight as she looks back at him. Suddenly, Kevin is willing to quit drinking and go back in earnest to his day job (award-winning architecture—who knew?); he’s the perfect man, so perfect in fact that you wonder if there’s such a thing as too perfect. Chi-Yan expresses similar doubts; her head tells her Kevin is the one but her heart tells her otherwise.
As the “otherwise,” Louis Koo has in my book the most interesting role: he plays Sean like Richard III wooing Lady Anne, and—Shakespeare knew all about this—succeeds beyond all expectations, seducing Anne—sorry, Chi-Yan—with the reckless effrontery of his proposal. Sean sleeps around—he reneges on his first date in favor of a well-endowed woman and oysters at the Four Seasons—and he’s unapologetic about it, mostly.
Unlike the terminally dull Nick Young (Henry Golding) in that more recent movie (whose only apparent fault is his Norman Bates-level mother fixation), Sean is a genuine asshole and knows it; twice women call him out, once by Chi-Yan. In a crucial scene, he admits this to her, even halfheartedly defends himself: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who sleep around and those who wish they did.” He struggles with his vices and Chi-Yan can see him struggle and, despite his faults, can’t help but feel for him: he’s trying to be a better man, a work in progress if you like. “Who knows?,” you can almost hear Chi-Yan whisper to herself. “The right woman might make a difference.”
Plus, Sean knows how to flirt. Sure, he spends serious money to win Chi-Yan over but it’s the way he spends—with subversive wit and a deft sense of timing—that keeps him a serious contender in her eyes: if they’re to have a relationship, she probably imagines, he’ll at least keep her on her toes.
Speaking of toes, the director does the same to his audience by keeping all three lovers in relative equidistance, literally. Sean keeps spotting Chi-Yan through his windshield, riding buses; later, they engage in sexy flirting through office windows. Kevin is a latecomer but fast learner and—being an architect—understands angles and perspectives between structures and the value of dramatic lighting (when he mugs for Chi-Yan, he sets the stage like a veteran prestidigitator).
Mention must be made of the way To uses his Hong Kong and Suzhou locations. That more recent movie may have more money (roughly $30 million) to throw at Singapore make the city look glamorous—drone shots, gigantic night-lit structures, expensive firework displays—but To does more with less, turning (with the help of cinematographers Cheng Siu-Keung and To Hung-Mo) Hong Kong into a lover’s wonderland, all gleam and glitter and glass through which you might spot—reflected or displayed within—your true love.
Perhaps the oldest problems in the genre of romantic comedy (or to use the newer and, in my opinion, more debased term “rom-com”) is coming up with a fresh way to keep lovers temporarily apart, divided, walled off, making the moment of contact all the more memorable. The Fantasticks literally used a wall; Shakespeare resorted to the even simpler device of a balcony. To pulls back further: a few hundred feet between buildings and two thicknesses of glass, with Post-it notes used to funny, sexy effect.
Yes, the film is shallow as a puddle but this form of long-distance lovemaking, I submit, is To’s most evocative contribution to the genre: it says we’re increasingly being separated by class and distance in this increasingly urban jungle, despite being connected—or because we’re so connected—by telecommunication devices. Perhaps the best way to break through is with ideas, expressed with the simplest devices, like Post-it notes. Or a frog.
About that damned frog, as unabashed a fairy-tale metaphor as any I’ve seen in recent movies—I’m surprised there aren’t more in rom-coms; it’s so funny and effective and (surprisingly) poignant (the ugly amphibian that effortlessly turns into a princely pet). I’m surprised frogs don’t overpopulate rom-coms like a biblical plague. But then (as Kevin knew all along, and Chi-Yan and Sean ultimately realize with regards to her lovers) this frog is special, worth treasuring, one-of-a-kind; there can be no other. And there can be no other Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is available on Google Play and YouTube for $2.99.