Sausalito (2000)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-23
Summary: Maggie Cheung is a terrible thing to waste.
Sequels are almost always a problem. Very occasionally they are artistically equal to or even superior to the original movie—for example, “Aliens”, “Godfather Part II” or “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”. Generally they are made only because the first movie was a hit and the producers hope to capitalize on the good reviews and ticket sales that it generated. What most sequels show is that no one really knows why movies work, why they appeal to an audience or what makes people decide to spend Saturday night at the cinema instead of the fifty other things they could be doing. In other words, Hollywood doesn’t have a clue, which is not really shocking news.

Hong Kong filmmakers have a much better track record with squeals—they did them almost as a matter of course in the 1980s and 1990s—but even they can run into real problems when trying to recapture the magic of an artistically and financially successful movie. “Sausalito” is an example of this. While not a sequel as such—it isn’t “Comrades, Almost a Love Story II”—it is in the same way that other movies that have the same cast, director and writers. “Pat and Mike” and “Adam’s Rib” starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, were directed by George Cukor and were written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. More recently, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and were written and directed by Nora Ephron. Each set of movies were romantic comedies with very serious sides to them in which the lead characters suffer through a number of trials and false starts until they realize that they were made for one another. In these cases the producers didn’t try to recreate the plots and settings of the original movies but to capture the mood and themes that made the first movies popular and to do so with the same personnel. It worked in those cases. It did not in the case of “Sausalito”.

At first I wanted to view “Sausalito” as a thing in itself, independent of “Comrades Almost a Love Story” which was quite difficult—more than difficult, it was impossible. However, judged on its own, “Sausalito” is a terrible movie with characters that don’t develop in the least, a paper-thin and very dull plot with almost no sustained conflict, unreal situations that are more annoying than interesting and outrageously hackneyed cinematography. But when compared with “Comrades” it is shockingly inept.

The characters are the same at the end of the movie as at the beginning, except that they have a lot more money. None of them has learned anything nor show any indication that they will in the future. They are not people that one would care to know. The climax is foreordained from the start of the movie—which is generally the case in romantic comedies, but not as obvious. Neither Mike nor Ellen has any alternative other than ending up in each other’s arms, happily ever after. The incomparable Maggie Cheung is Ellen, a cab driver in San Francisco, where the tips must be really great since she lives in a huge duplex apartment in what looks to be a very pricey part of town. She has a son who, in the matter of children of single parents in films, is wise beyond his years. She has a group of friends that cut across gender, class and racial lines. She is loved and trusted by everyone she knows, has no enemies and is even talented as a painter—and perhaps most unbelievably, has a huge black wall to use as a canvas, a wall that is not defaced, painted over or tagged. Leon Lai is Mike, the dot-com millionaire to be. He cuts a swath through the available women of San Francisco, has a huge office with a basketball goal but almost no computer equipment and whose biggest decision is whether to let the banks or the venture capitalists make him rich.

The various complications that arise along the way for these characters are invariably brought on by themselves. After developing his search engine to the extent that there is real interest his start-up by those who fund such ventures, Mike decides he doesn’t want to sell—which is the only way to cash in at this point and also the only way to repay the debt that start-ups like his always incur. And he doesn’t only elect to turn down the millions that are offered to him—the only way he could continue to fund his company—but does so in a way that is sure to deeply alienate a leading venture capital firm, one which is headed by Virginia Chow, placidly played by Valerie Chow. Ellen is offered everything she thinks she wants—love, commitment, security, a ton of money—by Mike but she dithers, sulks and agonizes until he is sick of her—as is the audience. Toward the end of the movie we wouldn’t mind if Mike threw himself into the sea and Ellen hopped on the next plane to Hong Kong.

The writers and director lost control of the material so completely that it took a deus ex machina in the form of a phone call from Bill Gates to rescue Mike and his partner Bob (and the movie itself) from collapse. Eric Kot who played Bob is one of the few high points of the movie. The cinematography was almost grotesque in its simplemindedness. There were enough scene setting shots of landmarks of the Bay area for a tourist bureau commercial. The camera generally kept a respectful and dull distance from the characters, which, in this case, is insane. One doesn’t hire Maggie Cheung for a role and then not fill the screen with close-ups of her whenever possible.

But it is in inevitable comparison with “Comrades” that makes “Sausalito” look amateurish and crude. One example is sex between the main characters. In “Comrades” it took a long time, a very funny mutual switching of coats and a lot of very human false starts before they wound up in bed. It was very much like that way that two lonely and reticent people decide to sleep together. In “Sausalito” they do it in the back of Ellen’s cab for no particular reason. Outrageously enough, Ellen is worried that she is pregnant after making love with Mike once or twice—while it allowed a few cheap jokes and a bit of unsuspenseful suspense (only to be dropped completely as a plot point) the entire situation was much too unbelievable. This was set in San Francisco in the year 2000, which was about 17 years after HIV/AIDS became a reality there. While unprotected sex with strangers may still occur, it strains credibility to have it a major part of the action of a movie.

One aspect that made “Comrades” such a wonderful movie was that there was real and honestly felt concern that Lai Siu Gwan and Lee Kiu might miss connecting with each other—either physically or emotionally. That concern led to some terrific scenes which don’t need recounting here. Since there was only one way to go in “Sausalito”, there wasn't any conflict to captivate the audience—or even interest it. Lee Kiu went from being a small time capitalist to a massage parlor girl to a gangster’s consort to a barely legal immigrant in the U.S. She was scared, confident, hopeless, satisfied and sexy at different times—occasionally all of them in the same scene. Ellen, on the other hand, went from cab driver to girlfriend. Her emotional range was grumpy to sluggish.

The producers of “Sausalito” accomplished one thing that I didn’t think would be possible. They made a movie starring Maggie Cheung that I don’t want to see a second time and think that the first was a waste. Quite amazing.
Reviewer Score: 1