Moonlight Express (1999)
Reviewed by: morgold on 2000-01-29
I saw this film the way I really like to see a film--without any prior knowledge, without having read any plot summaries, and with only a cursory knowledge of the cast and director. Thus, I would have few preconceptions, and I can try to enjoy it "fresh." Nevertheless, I am still slightly disappointed in the film, even though I went into it with no prejudices.

Not that it isn't well made, because it is--these days Leslie Cheung wouldn't be caught dead in anything less than an A-level production. But the story--a woman's husband dies in a car crash, but when she meets his doppleganger (Cheung in dual roles) she tries to delusionally fall in love with him, as a substitute for her late husband--seems too familiar. The film touches on themes of irretrievable loss and tries to psychologize the transience of romance (especially ill-fated ones), but the film has an air of "deja vu" about it.

The idea of the double, or doppleganger, has a very long history in film (as it does in literature), going back at least to the 1912 German film "The Student of Prague." Since then, we have seen Hitchcock ("Vertigo"), Bergman ("Persona"), de Palma ("Body Double"), Roeg ("Performance"), Louis Malle ("Spirits of the Dead," from Poe) and recently Stanley Kwan ("Hold You Tight"), among about a hundred others, exploit this idea. Indeed, I think the sway that "Vertigo" still holds over filmmakers today is remarkable. But what I fear is that this idea has exhausted its basic possibilities, and "Moonlight Express"'s variations on the theme are old hat--and are actually less revelatory than "Vertigo" itself.

As Leslie Cheung's character is doubled, so is the film's plot, as it attempts to balance both the doppleganger-love story and a more conventional plot about how Cheung's character (the "double"), an undercover cop, is being framed by forces within the police. The two plots mesh oddly at times, and the female lead behaves unbelievably (even to someone like me, who doesn't care for realism) when she calmly accepts the fact that the "double" she has fallen in love with thrusts her unexpectedly into a shootout. The cop-movie stuff here actually only makes the "existential" love story more conventional, and I wonder if there could have been a fresher way of complicating the love story rather than having it be attached to and freighted with familiar cop-heroics.

The director, Daniel Lee, also displayed a penchant for incongruous subplots in his earlier "Til Death Do Us Part" (1997), which featured a surprisingly bloody action scene which was entirely tangential to its psychological profile of domestic madness. This incongruity forces us to question the conventionality of the film--is the director intentionally attempting to subvert standards of realism by combining the incongruous conventions of different genres? In the case of "Moonlight," the different genres would be 'romance' and 'crime/action', and rather than try to seemlessly synthesize the two, director Lee goes out of his way to show where the film's 2 different generic inspirations don't mesh, and contrast each other. HK movies often mix genres, but when it does so it is usually action and comedy, with no attempt to hybridize them seemlessly as do Hollywood films. In both "Til Death" and "Moonlight", director Lee's mixing of psychology and action is something quite different, however.

I can applaud this idea, but I am no sure how successfully Lee pulls it off. His earlier "What Price Survival" (1994) was stronger perhaps because it created its own consistent yet individual style, rather than cobbling together borrowed elements of conventional styles. I also have to say that there are about 4 or 5 especially rancid English-language song montages (in addition to the usual Cantopop) which seriously fracture an already disassociated narrative. Perhaps without the intrusion of these songs, we could better piece together the story--as it is, the songs only alienated me further. I think the songs here are analogous to scenes in "Til Death..." in which director Lee abandoned the straightforwardness of his story for sequences of obvious, MTV-ish camerawork; in both cases, the intrusion of directorial "style" impedes rather than facilitates comprehension of the film. Some films are made or broken by their music, and "Moonlight" (like Johnnie To's "Loving You") comes fearfully close to the latter.

All in all, there is still good stuff here, and Lee is certainly a director to keep an eye on, for at least he has some ideas. But the film never quite reconciles its own double personality.