Review: BUT ALWAYS Urges Chinese Emigrants To Come Home Or Die
Nicholas Tse proves he is better-suited to tough guy roles than romantic leads, but his inert performance here opposite Gao Yuanyuan is far from the only problem with Snow Zou's shockingly cliched and unaware tragi-romance.
When a film opens in New York City, circa 2001, before jumping back in time to show how its characters got there, it's a safe bet that events are going to end unhappily. Such is the case in Snow Zou Xian's feature debut as writer-director, which clumsily signposts its tragic finale right from its opening moments, as Nicholas Tse's suited Yongyuan strolls towards the World Trade Center after a heartfelt phone call from Gao Yuanyuan's doe-eyed Anran.
Cut to 1976, and 4-year-old Anran's mother is killed helping victims of the Tongshan earthquake, but not before telling her daughter to study hard and become a doctor too. Moving to Beijing with her father, the wealthy Anran is singled out by her impoverished classmates, but young tyke Yongyuan vows to keep her safe, and follows her everywhere she goes. The youngsters continue like this until Yongyuan's grandmother dies and he is whisked off to Guangzhou before he can say goodbye.
By the time Yongyuan and his uncle (Lam Suet) return to Beijing to run a stall at the ladies market, Anran is well on her way to becoming a doctor and securing a visa to complete her studies at Columbia University. When they are reunited, they consummate their years of yearning, only for Yongyuan to be arrested and jailed for fighting, after his get rich quick scheme sees him clash with a rival gang. Believing that Yongyuan has left her for another girl, Anran flees to New York, where she is beset by a string of tragedies. But the two lovers are destined to be reunited, and when they are, Yongyuan is now rich, while Anran has become a penniless student.
But Always is the perfect starring vehicle for Gao Yuanyuan, who has built an incredibly successful career around playing exactly this kind of beautiful, determined yet fragile woman. She plays Anran almost on autopilot, while still making her sympathetic and somewhat adorable. It's just a shame the actress hasn't been given any material that might challenge her range or abilities further than we have seen in the past.
Nicholas Tse, however, is ill-at-ease almost from the get-go, unable to relax into his role or generate any kind of onscreen chemistry with Gao. Whether pining, preening or seductively beating eggs, Tse just can't cut it the way he's managed to channel brooding and belligerent in the past. However, there is no denying that both actors are completely upstaged by the pint-sized performers who portray their younger selves. While the extended sequence in which their friendship is forged is largely unnecessary within the context of the film, the junior cast ensure their time onscreen is the film's most successful segment.
Snow Zou capitalises on Tse's limited strengths, however, by ensuring that the actor gets his shirt off as often as possible and gives his ripped torso and chiselled arms plenty of screen time. However, elsewhere in the film, the cinematography is stylised to the point of distraction, employing an abundance of soft focus and lens flare techniques that obscure the action and muddy the frame, rather than add an intended air of tenderness or romance to the narrative.
Hong Kong cinema has a long-standing tradition of taking its romances overseas, and New York has proved a particular favourite in the past, in classics like Mabel Cheung's An Autumn's Tale. But while the first half of But Always is narratively robust and well-paced, once the action moves to New York the film soon loses its way. A new love interest is introduced in the form of Qin Hao's struggling painter, personal tragedies befall both parties, while Yongyuan's rags-to-riches story is totally implausible - not least him mastering English in a single year while Anran's diligent student is still incomprehensible after years hitting the books. In fact, Yongyuan's newfound wealth appears to have been written into the script solely to have him cruise around in a stretch limo and land a WTC office just in time for September.
In its final reel, tragic events unfold with such calamitous regularity and lack of self-awareness that the only tears they are likely to induce are ones of unintentional laughter. As if this string of cliches and contrivances weren't enough, the film then has the gall to use the economic aftermath of 9/11 to underscore a message running throughout the film - that Anran and Yongyuan's dreams of moving to America were foolish in the first place. Time and again the two lovers wrestle with the unassailable truth that Beijing is where they belong, and where they should have stayed all along.
Peter Chan's 2013 hit American Dreams In China made a similar point of urging Chinese students to return home after furthering their education overseas, which Zou references here by casting Tong Dawei as Anran's English teacher. And as her film's coda spells out in no uncertain terms, China has now become a great economic powerhouse, so at least one of the film's heroes may yet get to experience the happiness they had always fantasised about enjoying together.
- Snow Zou
- Zhang Buniu
- Zhang Buniu (screenplay)
- Ho Leung Lau (screenplay)
- Snow Zou (original story)
- Snow Zou (screenplay)
- Nicholas Tse
- Yuanyuan Gao
- Haitao Du
- Alice Li