We did a double take when we first read that Andrew Lau's next project after the martial arts vigilante flick "The Legend of Chen Zhen" was a romantic drama between two unlikely individuals with a melodramatic twist. After all, this is the director of hard-boiled crime thrillers like "Infernal Affairs" and "Young and Dangerous", whose occasional foray out of his comfort zone has only been to the relatively safe rom- com territory (i.e. the Andy Lau-Shu Qi romance "Look For A Star").
But with a distinct change in genre, Andrew Lau has cemented his reputation as one of the best contemporary directors in Hong Kong- because this drama is not only warm and engaging, it is also exceptionally moving. Indeed, it is probably one of the most heartfelt films you'll see this year, a resounding affirmation of the strength and the courage true love gives to its beholder, and the more sentimental viewers among us will best be advised to get their Kleenexes ready.
Turning once again to his favourite leading lady, Andrew Lau casts Shu Qi in the role of Li Peiru, a young and ambitious real estate agent from Hong Kong in the city of Beijing trying to strike it rich. She meets the honest and principled local policeman Fang Zhendong (Liu Ye) one night while entertaining her potential clients at a karaoke bar, and despite his best efforts to shake her off, Zhendong ends up taking the intoxicated Peiru home and putting her in bed.
They meet again through a series of handy coincidences, and the straight-laced cop quickly but surely finds himself falling for Peiru- even though she is in a torturous relationship with a married man. Zhendong is the characteristic lonely soul yearning for companionship, his first responsibility towards his younger autistic brother Zhencong (Tian Liang) leaving him with little time and energy to socialise and meet new friends. Their mutual affections aren't contrived- underneath her veneer of confidence lies an equally lonely heart searching for true love- and Zhendong recognises it even before Peiru does.
For the first hour, Tang Kit Ming's (who also wrote "Look For A Star") screenplay lays bare the depth of Zhendong's love for Peiru- Zhendong cooks for her, cleans up after her drunken stupors, and even agrees to spy on her boyfriend to make sure he isn't cheating on her with another mistress (he is). But the real test of his love for her comes after her fall from grace- she loses her job, has to downgrade from her swanky apartment to a much smaller place, and asks to borrow money to start her own business. Kit Ming's script isn't afraid to let them fall in love in less than typical adorable rom-com fashion, and it is through his characters' day-to-day real-life struggles that we empathise with them even more.
Of course, much of the empathy the film generates is due to the endearing performances by both Liu Ye and Shu Qi. While it is probably no stretch for her playing the teasing flirtatious Peiru at the start of the film, it is her character's subsequent downfall that proves truly interesting to watch. These later scenes bring out an unexpected nuance in Shu Qi's acting, and the most remarkable of these is a single uninterrupted hand-held shot in an alleyway where her character reveals her deeply heartfelt plight- she has to earn money to help support her debt-saddled family back in Hong Kong. Liu Ye's intense down-to-earth performance is an excellent complement against Shu Qi, and the two evince an easygoing chemistry that will win you over effortlessly.
The strength of their combined performances is also a huge reason why the second half of the film anchored by a melodramatic twist turns out affecting and poignant, especially in its portrayal of the reciprocal nature of true love. This latter half also contains perhaps the most touching sequence in the film, one which speaks volumes about Zhendong's love for Peiru and his efforts to love Peiru to the best of his abilities in spite of his frailties. Lau tries to top this with an even more emotionally wraught climax, but can't escape the obvious contrivances of its plotting.
Yet that doesn't distract from an otherwise perfectly crafted film, a tearjerker if you will, that reminds us of the inherent desire within each and every one of us for company and companionship, and the lengths to which true love will give us the strength and willpower to go to. What is a beautiful life? It is a life lived fully in true love, perfectly embodied here in that between Zhendong and Peiru.