September 17, 2005


Sammi Cheng in EVERLASTING REGRETIn which Sammi Cheng cries three times; a name is dropped; the Cultural Revolution doesn't look nearly as bad as you expected; and everyone is thoroughly confused.

Stanley Kwan could be Hong Kong's best director of women after Wong Kar-wai. He knows how to make them look good, he knows how to get their best performances out of them, and he knows how to convince them to go beyond their comfort zones. Even so, after he basically reinvented Maggie Cheung with CENTRE STAGE, showed Anita Mui's tragic side in ROUGE, and gave us an unexpected Chow Yung-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Elaine Jin in LOVE UNTO WASTE (and even did wonders for Chingmy Yau in HOLD YOU TIGHT), even after all this it still seemed like an iffy proposition that he could pull the same thing off with Sammi Cheng in EVERLASTING REGRET. As stories about Sammi's erratic behavior came off the set everyone thought that either she'd shine like a star in this flick, or crash and burn. When Mainland Chinese pressure was brought to bear and the order came down that the movie had to be slightly altered to pass muster, it seemed that maybe Stanley Kwan had hit it out of the park with a movie that was too close to history for comfort.

No such thing. Set in Shanghai from the 40's to the 80's and following Sammi Cheng as Qiyao, a woman whose heartlessness and selfishness cause her to alienate everyone who loves her, EVERLASTING REGRET looks real pretty, but even if my life depended on it I couldn't tell you what went on.

Sammi Cheng isn't exactly bad in this movie, but she doesn't really do a whole lot of anything. I guess the problem with making a movie about a woman whose emotions are closed off and kept hidden is that it doesn't give the audience a lot to look at, especially in a movie that's shot almost entirely in close ups. The credits say that William Chang (Wong Kar-wai's constant collaborator) is the production designer here, but I wouldn't know since the camera rarely drops below the actors' neckline.

Tony Leung Kar-fai more than earns his paycheck as the one performer who really stands out, playing a photographer who loves Qiyao from afar but winds up a broken wreck. There's some life from the other actors but every time one of them appears you find yourself missing them once they leave. Couldn't the movie follow the life of Qiyao's friend, Lili (Su Yan, a Mainland TV actress), who seems to actually do things and displays actual emotions? But no, we're stuck with Sammi and the movie rapidly devolves into a series of Mainland Chinese art film cliches: here's the scene of two Chinese people sitting at a table and staring off in opposite directions; here's the man in a sweater vest staring out the window and smoking a cigarette; here's the scene at a Shanghai nightclub with pretty dresses; here's the wife breaking something; here's the stolen kiss in the hallway. The only thing the movie misses is a tearful farewell in a train station, but maybe that will be on the director's cut DVD.

Sammi's performance is so tamped down that in the three scenes where she demonstrates actual emotions she seems completely over the top. The first time she feels an emotion she's so upset by it that she bangs her head against a wall and collapses to the floor sobbing; the second time she screams like a banshee; the third time she's a squirming, squalling wreck. For a movie that plays mostly on mute this is a very painful experience.

The biggest problem with the flick is that it makes no sense. Just as Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS plays fast and loose with geography, EVERLASTING REGRET gets loosey-goosey with chronology. At the start of the film, Qiyao hooks up with Officer Li. The characters comment that they've been involved for about a year. Then, suddenly, she's signing a lease on an apartment he's gotten for her and the date on the contract is 1956. Seeing that the movie started out with a bunch of gangsters hanging around a gaudy dancehall, sticking guns in each others' stomachs after a hard night at the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant I thought the movie had to start in the post-War/pre-Revolution years (sometime between 1945 and 1949). But if that's the case then how can she be involved with Officer Li for one year and at the end of that year sign a contract dated 1956? I don't think that there were a whole lot of Miss Shanghai pageants after the Communist Revolution in 1949. Were they hanging out in dog years?

This turns out to be one of the least confusing things that happen. As the movie progresses, questions rapidly outstrip answers and the whole "When did she get the aparment?" conundrum starts looking downright obvious. It pains me to admit it, but I couldn't understand almost anything that happened in the second hour of the film. I thought it was just me until, on the way out of the theater, I saw Gavin Smith. Gavin in the editor of FILM COMMENT magazine, which is the flagship publication of the big brain cinema set, and if anyone's going to know what's going on in a movie it's got to be Gavin and his whirling neurons. But even he was confused about an awful lot of plot details. Kudos to Stanley Kwan for baffling someone who has to be the smartest film guy in the US, and if that was his goal then he totally scored.

Watching EVERLASTING REGRET is like going to a dog convention where the dogs do all the talking. It's interesting, and certainly watchable, but you can't make heads or tails of what's going on. And somehow I don't think that's the point.

September 17, 2005 at 07:11 PM in Reviews | Permalink


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