One can get in the mood for love by checking out a tale of longing lovers starring luminous In the Mood for Love leading lady Maggie Cheung, Comrades: Almost a Love Story . Pay no attention to the “almost” in the title; not only is Peter Chan’s 1996 film most certainly a love story, it is no less than one of best romances–and movies, period–to emerge from Hong Kong or anywhere else in the ’90s.
“Comrades” is a love story, but it’s a fact that its principal players rebel against in its initial stages. As the box art says, “this is not so much a story about people falling in love but rather of two young hearts trying their best not to fall in love with each other.” The hearts in question belong to Qiao (Cheung) and Xiaojun (Leon Lai), two native Mainlanders who meet in, of all places, a McDonald’s in 1986 Hong Kong. Despite their shared heritage, these two could not be more different. Leaving her modest Mainland roots far behind her, Qiao speaks fluent Cantonese and steadily builds up a solid nest egg by holding down a number of jobs, one of which being a recruiter for language classes. The naive Xiaojun, on the other hand, is very much a fish out of water in the hustle and bustle of the big city. He slowly but surely gets the hang of the HK life and language, but he maintains strong ties to where he comes from, frequently writing letters back home.
Yet somehow these two become best friends, and as Xiaojun cracks Qiao’s hard shell and she helps him wise up, the two fail to own up to their deepening feelings. The situation just intensifies as the years pass (the film follows the span of a decade), but various things, particularly conflicting love affairs and dreams, always manage to keep them apart. My basic description may make such plot machinations sound like easy audience manipulation, but it’s a credit to Chan and screenwriter Ivy Ho that the story never falls into that trap. The turns the story takes are never arbitrary but rather firmly rooted into who these two people are. While there is a certainly a sense of the “love conquers all” mentality that permeates every screen romance, “Comrades” knows that love isn’t necessarily everything ; people have a variety of interests, and people choose to focus on certain ones over others. Of course, whether or not they make the right decisions is another matter entirely.
Cheung and Lai exhibit sparkling chemistry from their first scene together, and their rapport visibly strengthens as the film progresses; they also have a certain playful quality that makes their relationship not only sweet but fun. The magic of their relationship carries over to the film as a whole, making it easy to accept the more unlikely love stories that linger in the background: one between an English teacher (Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle, taking a turn in front of the camera) and a prostitute; and Xiaojun’s aunt’s fond remembrance of a romance with none other than William Holden.
Lai is impressively subtle as Xiaojun, and while he more than holds his own with Cheung, there’s no denying that she is the star that shines brightest. Qiao isn’t the most warm person at the start, but one nonetheless connects with her, thanks to the spunky charm Cheung brings to the character. As Qiao’s feelings develop, Cheung’s performance grows even more vivid–often without speaking a word. Many of the film’s tearwringing moments get their power from Chan’s expert use of her amazingly expressive face, which can register so much emotion with so little effort.
I’ve heard “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” called “exhausting,” and it’s an assessment that I don’t disagree with. That comment certainly applies, but not in a derisive way; considering the film engages one’s emotions so strongly that one intimately experiences the characters’ crushing heartbreaks and exhilarating highs right along with them, “exhausting” is perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to this intensely involving and incredibly moving modern classic.