Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-09-01
Summary: Works on many levels.
Patrick Chan and Ivy Ho throw every romantic movie convention imaginable into “Comrades, Almost a Love Story” and succeed in telling a touching and heartbreaking story. Lai Siu Gwan and Lee Kiu are two attractive, unattached and lonely Mainlanders trying to make their way in Hong Kong. The attraction between them is almost a palpable force. They are still drawn to the each other across oceans, continents and years—they are fated to be together, even though both of them fight against it.

This is close to the peak of Maggie Cheung’s powers. Strikingly beautiful and astonishingly talented, the audience falls in love with her from her first appearance in a MacDonald’s uniform. This is the Maggie that has enough Golden Horses to start a ranch, that the Germans loved in “Centre Stage” and the French went crazy for in “Clean”—and should have for “Irma Vep”. In the beginning her character works 20 hours a day at several jobs, trying to put together enough money to emigrate. She becomes a massager parlor girl, the wife/girlfriend/consort of a triad tough guy, a successful and wealthy businesswoman, an undocumented immigrant on the run from the law and a tour guide at the Statue of Liberty. The transitions are seamless, the acting transparent, the actress submerged in the character. If she had stopped making movies with “Comrades” she would be remembered as a great actress. There are a lot of screen filling close ups of her. One that is burned in my memory is when she and Leon Lai part after they see Teresa Tang and he gets her autograph on his jacket. She tells him to leave—the range of emotions she shows during this several second shot is astounding—then drops her head to the steering wheel and sounds the horn. He turns around and wonders if he should come back—the shot of Maggie’s face, biting her lower lip while willing him both to leave and to come back, is a thrilling piece of movie making.

On one level there is a very effective hyper-romantic movie. There are soulful looks, lingering glances and averted eyes. There is a wrenching leave-taking on a rain swept dock, a woman willing to stay with the man who needs her instead of the man she loves and a desperate dash through mid-town Manhattan traffic, calling the name of her just out of reach lover. It is romantic with a capital R, as wonderfully overdone as “Tristan und Isolde”, with characters entrusting their lives and loves to fate. There aren’t many tropes of the romantic genre that don’t show up on the screen but Patrick Chan keeps everything on this side (sometimes barely) of bathos.

“Comrades” takes place between 1986 and 1995. The coming handover to the PRC, the 1987 world wide stock market crash and the beginning of the AIDS crises are all part of the fabric of the movie. Before the market collapse Lee Kiu was convinced that “This is Hong Kong—anything is possible.” Afterwards she is frightened and tentative, saying that “I am scared. I don’t know what to do”. Broke, she goes to work in a massage parlor, a job of which she is ashamed. She meets Pao, a tough mid-level triad guy and impresses him because, unlike the others girls, only does massage. She says she is not afraid of Pao or anyone else—she is only afraid of rats.

Pao is played by Eric Tsang. David Bordwell mentions this in his excellent “Planet Hong Kong”. Since Tsang is known for his comic roles, his face is shown very briefly at first. We see his broad back covered with intricate tattoos and hear his voice, rough and abrupt when dealing with a subordinate, softer and wheedling with Lee. By the time Pao is fully introduced (now the Lee’s escort and apparent benefactor) we accept Tsang the comedian in a dramatic role. But since Tsang almost never plays a villain, the audience realizes that Pao, while a triad chieftain, is also a decent guy.

The second supporting character and fourth part of the rectangle is Siu Ting, Lai’s fiancee from the mainland. She is depicted by the gorgeous Kristy Cheung as a reticent woman who begins to blossom in Hong Kong. Siu is a trained dancer who assumes that because she doesn’t know anyone in her new home she won’t be able to use her training. Under Lee’s tutelage she opens a dance school and is busy and involved with it.

There are two inflection points involving both Lai and Lee and their partners. Pao has to get out of town quickly. He is on a boat going to Taiwan and Lee, accompanied by Lai, goes to see him one last time and tell him that she has fallen in love with another. She isn’t able to do so, deciding at the very last minute that she has to stick with Pao. Lai is left standing on a the dock in drenching rain waiting for her to return, then watching helplessly as the boat carrying both of them disappears into the storm. Lai then tells Siu that he is in love with Lee—she insists that they pack and leave that night for their old home in the Mainland where nothing like this could happen. She wants her old life back but Lai doesn’t.

Earlier in the movie there is an extremely effective and sexy love scene between Maggie (Lee) and Leon Lai (Lai). The two of them have taken refuge from a storm on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Lee has lost a lot of money, some borrowed from loansharks, in buying and trying to sell Teresa Tang recordings—but no one in Hong Kong wants them since she is identified so strongly with the Mainland. They are tired, wet and worried about the future. Lee gets ready to leave. Lai buttons her raincoat, then puts his coat over that one and buttons it. They are standing as close to each other as two humans can without embracing. Inevitably but clumsily they kiss and Lai is now fumbling to unfasten the buttons on the two coats. Both of them are hungry for the other—their desire is shown first in their steely reserve, then in their complete surrender to each other. Most Hollywood love/sex scenes are of the “is it over yet?” variety—there are only so many ways you can show two human beings coupling while not actually showing it. The built in limits of Hong Kong filmmaking force directors and actors to be more creative in showing how real people decide to make love. This, like many other scenes in “Comrades” is close to perfect.

Highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 10