Review: ROMANCING IN THIN AIR marks a welcome return for Sammi Cheng
In a rare, but much welcome change of pace, Johnnie To came off the back of 2009's disappointing multinational crime thriller, VENGEANCE, with two relatively light and fluffy romances. DON'T GO BREAKING MY HEART successfully navigated a complex and hard-to-predict love triangle through the tumultuous financial tsunami that hit Hong Kong harder than most. While the next film to be released in cinemas bearing To's directorial moniker was LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE, a similarly finance-obsessed work, it was a project To had in fact been tinkering with for a number of years already. Instead, once DON'T GO BREAKING... had been completed, the Milkyway Image crew headed north into the mountains of Yunnan, where Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng would star in snowbound love story, ROMANCING IN THIN AIR.
The exact reasons why it has taken so long for the film to reach the screen remain unclear, but it has finally arrived and will be opening in Hong Kong and China on 9 February. Johnnie To has made no secret of the fact that this particular project is one "for them", stressing that it is not always possible to make the artistic films that he may want to, and every now and then even he has to placate his investors and deliver a project that will turn a healthy profit. That is not to say that this film should be ignored or dismissed by fans of his other work, after all regular collaborator Wai Ka Fai is on board as screenwriter, but ROMANCING IN THIN AIR consciously delivers a story that should have no trouble passing the mainland's stringent censorship regulations and appeal to a wide audience north of the border.
What should be of more interest to many viewers is that the film marks the return (once again) of Asian Queen of Pop Sammi Cheng to the big screen, appearing in only her second film since 2005's EVERLASTING REGRET. Here she plays a young woman living in the shadow of a great tragedy, unable to move on with her life because of her inability to let go of the past. Sue (Cheng) runs the Deep Woods Hotel in Shangri-la, Yunnan province - an idyllic getaway nestled between the mountains and the dense forests. Many years ago her husband, Tian (Li Guangjie) set out into the dark, oppresive woods, and has yet to return. While those around her have accepted the inevitable, Sue refuses to believe that Tian won't be coming home.
Into this wintry world of grief-stricken solitude staggers Michael Lau (Louis Koo), Hong Kong's biggest superstar, who is going through something of a personal crisis. An award-winning actor and musician, adored by millions, he was publicly humiliated when his bride-to-be, the equally famous actress Yuan Yuan (Gao Yuanyuan) dumped him at the altar in favour of a life of anonymity with her childhood sweetheart (the criminally unglamorous Wang Biaoqiang). Turning to the bottle, Michael disappears from the public eye, only to resurface at Sue's mountain lodge, where she reluctantly takes him in.
And here's the rub...it transpires that despite her nonchalant demeanour, Sue is in fact a huge Michael Lau fan - perhaps the biggest. She's been following his career so long that her membership number to the Michael Lau fan club is "033". At first she keeps this fact secret from her perpetually drunk guest, but the truth is eventually revealed and it brings the couple closer together.
While the second half of ROMANCING IN THIN AIR is crammed with drama, romance, extended flashbacks and an incredibly meta finale, the film begins very slowly, allowing its audience time to adjust from the media frenzy of Michael's public humiliation to the quiet serenity of Shangri-La. Cheung Siu Keung and To Hung Mo's cinematography helps a great deal, using numerous lengthy wide angle shots to take in the beautiful surroundings, at the same time introducing Sue and her motley crew of gal pals who populate the hotel. If ever Michael needed the perfect environment to detox and find his feet again, the fresh Yunnan air and five adoring women will surely prove the best medicine. Likewise, Guy Zerafa's beautifully melancholic score dictates the soothing pace of the film and while the early section may be short on thrills, save for a number of rather goofy vehicular incidents directly related to Michael's drinking, it succeeds in creating a world that feels real and warm, despite the snow-covered scenery.
Louis Koo has been on an incredible role over the past few years, with no sign of relinquishing his current status as the ubiquitous face of Hong Kong Cinema. As Michael Lau he strikes the perfect balance between beautifully groomed A-list celebrity and approachable everyman in need of real friends and genuine support. The script offers Koo numerous opportunities to poke fun, not at his own image so much as the film industry in general, as the film examines the nature of celebrity and we catch glimpses of his previous star vehicles, such as FIRE MAN, AIRPORT POLICE and the multi-award-winning tear jerker MY HUSBAND'S GLASSES - which proves particularly poignant when addressing Sue's issues. While Koo is called upon to act inebriated in a number of scenes, they never grate in the way such moments so easily can - although he does manage to recover from his crippling alcoholism with such implausible ease that the entire plot point is immediately discarded, never to be mentioned again.
But the real acting praise must go to Sammi Cheng, who delivers an impressively nuanced performance as the naturally happy-go-lucky Sue, whose life has been crushed under the weight of losing a loved one. Whether portraying Sue as a confident business owner, coyly flirtatious would-be lover or grieving wife longing for resolution and closure, Cheng is never less than completely convincing. The more eagle-eyed attendees at tonight's preview screening will have noticed Sammi sneaking in at the back of the cinema seconds before the lights went down, only to sneak out again just before the film's final moments, and one can hardly blame the actress for wanting to experience the film with an audience ahead of its official premiere. Her confidence must have been kicked all out of shape after the lukewarm reception to her attempt at "serious acting" back in 2005, and the similarly mixed feelings towards her only film since, LADY COP AND PAPA CROOK. Cheng's reunion here with Johnnie To proves to be an incredibly positive step forward and, with her next film also slated to bring long-time screen partner Andy Lau into the mix, this could mark the beginning of a new chapter in the actress' career.
Sadly, the rest of the cast are gifted little more than extended cameos, particularly the other touted "name performers" in the production. Gao Yuanyuan and Wang Biaogang have only a couple of minutes of screen time between them, while Huang Yi and Wilfred Lau - playing Michael's agent and her personal assistant - have barely a single line of memorable dialogue in the entire film. All eyes are locked firmly on the two big name leads, and they both do a commendable job of keeping the audience emotionally engaged, even when the script begins to morph unnecessarily into what feels like a different film in the final reel.
Whether there were rewrites and reshoots at the eleventh hour or not, the version of ROMANCING IN THIN AIR that has made it to the screen has far more positive aspects to it than faults, and should encourage both its director and stars to continue exploring future projects in this particular direction. Personally, I've seen enough of Milkyway's crime thrillers to last a lifetime, and if we must endure sentimental romantic crowd-pleasing dramas in order to watch our favourite actors at work, I'm only too happy to have talented filmmakers like Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai calling the shots.
Romancing in Thin Air
- Johnnie To
- Jevons Au (screenplay)
- Ka-Fai Wai (screenplay)
- Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
- Louis Koo
- Sammi Cheng
- Yuanyuan Gao
- Baoqiang Wang