This wonderful film is not available in the UK (and wasn’t released in UK cinemas as far as I’m aware – a fate it shares with the equally wonderful Actress/Centre Stage). This is a terrible state of affairs since this is one of the best performances by the iconic star of Chinese cinema, Maggie Cheung Man Yuk. Leon Lai is equally good and it’s a tribute to the film that I still think this even after struggling to watch it on a Hong Kong VCD. (I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but Hong Kong films on VCD have both Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks and I have found it quite difficult to disable one of the two tracks on my MacBook – I finally worked it out when I set the audio on the computer all the way to right or left and then played the film using Quicktime.)
The story could only be set in Hong Kong before 1997. It begins in 1986 with the arrival of Li Xiao Jun (Leon Lai) from the Mainland in the hope of making enough money to pay for his marriage to his girlfriend, still back in Tianjin (in North Eastern China). Searching for jobs he meets Maggie Cheung (as Li Qiao) who is working behind the counter at McDonalds. She decides to help a fellow Mainlander (she comes from Guangzhou – on the mainland, but close to Hong Kong), but gives the impression that she has been in Hong Kong for a long time. She has several jobs and many schemes to make money (her aim is to be rich and buy her mother a house) and she is soon humouring Xiao Jun, treating him as a country bumpkin. Despite their differences they eventually fall in love. They make an interesting couple and we get to see what happens to them over a 10 year period leading up to the eve of the handover. This isn’t an art film but a thoughtful entertainment film complete with a narrative twist in its resolution.
It is distinctively a Hong Kong film with a theme of migration and memory – the most important theme in Hong Kong cinema up to 1997 as far as I can see. The soundtrack carries the songs of Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng throughout the film and they also figure directly in the narrative. Western audiences will recognise some of the nostalgia (and the yearning for migration) from the films of Wong Kar-wai and this film would make a fascinating double bill with In the Mood for Love.
The genre of the film is the romance melodrama with its mixture of nostalgia, hardship and lucky coincidences and its narrative conventions of weddings, break-ups and reconciliations. It works so well that you fear that Hollywood will want to remake it. I don’t think that it could be done. Although the US too is a nation built on migration, I haven’t seen an American film with this feel – except perhaps in the glimpses of Little Italy in the early 20th century in Godfather II. Most of all, I just can’t see a Hollywood star who could do what Maggie Cheung does. I realise that this may again be a function of watching a narrative from a different culture and not following the spoken language – I get used to just watching the faces and Maggie Cheung does so much with her beautiful face.
I was surprised to see a user comment on IMDB that begins with an assertion that this film isn’t ‘political’ (and this from a Chinese or Hong Kong user, I think). It was clear to me that the central characters have quite different attitudes to making money and ‘getting on’. Li Qiao buys in completely to the capitalist dream and she makes her money in various ways, including dabbling on the stock exchange and recruiting students for an English language class. Her whole approach is based on an embrace of the service industry ethos of late capitalism and a recurring image views her subjectively from the perspective of an ATM machine which charts the rise (and fall) of her savings. Xiao Jun, by contrast, establishes himself through family connections and eventually takes jobs associated with the restaurant business in a traditional family-based approach. I found the chapter on the film by Rey Chow in her book Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films (2007) very useful and I hope to review the whole book at a later date. At this point, I’d like to pick up just a few of the points she makes.
One of the striking points about Comrades is that it offers a series of romances/relationships, each of which in some way comments on the central relationship. Two of these involve Chinese women and Western men and both of them involve the impact of globalisation. The first involves Xiao Jun’s aunt, who years ago as a young woman supposedly spent a day in a hotel with the Hollywood actor William Holden when he was filming Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing (US 1955) in Hong Kong. (Chow points out that the aunt is played by Irene Tsu who had an uncredited role in Holden’s other Hong Kong movie, The World of Suzie Wong (UK 1960)). This kind of intertextuality also extends to the other romance – between an English teacher and a Thai prostitute called Cabbage. The teacher is played by Christopher Doyle, then Hong Kong resident and cinematographer to Wong Kar-wai. These two romances, one past (and possibly a fantasy?) and one uncertain, are complemted by Li Qiao’s own ‘arrangement’ with an older gangster figure (played by Eric Tsang). The scenes between these two are sometimes very affecting and add to the emotional impact of Li Qiao’s attachment to Xiao Jun. All the men involved in the relationships seem caring and understanding (Bill Holden is, of course, ‘absent’) and the narrative seems to me to be sympathetic to the woman’s position.
Chow is as interested in the ideological discourse associated with Li Qiao’s embrace of Hong Kong capitalism as she is in the the discourse of migration and identity and she offers several important observations. One, I liked about the visual symbols of movement and commercial energy concerns the enfless flow of people through rapid transit systems, airport security, etc. against the images of Xiao Jun on his bicycle seemingly cycling without effort against the flow. All this and Teresa Teng on the soundtrack – I’m sure there is more going on than I can fathom. I’d say more about the ending of the film, but I don’t want to spoil it if you get the chance to see the film. Unavailable at the moment, distribution seems to be in the hands of Warner Home Video – perhaps they have plans to re-release it?
Since you can’t get it anywhere with English subs, here is a YouTube link (you can probably watch the whole film on YouTube if you look carefully):