Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cherie Chung in An Autumn's Tale

It feels funny reviewing a film that both Brian and Kozo have already reviewed, but I think that, given my recent Cherie Chung phase, I'd be remiss if I didn't review it.

Mabel Cheung is the director who made me first look at Shu Qi as a decent actress and not just an on-screen hottie. The director's City of Glass was an early non-action offering in my HK cinema education, and I'm one of the few people who seemed to quite like Beijing Rocks. But, like I said, I'm pretty tolerant of anything Shu Qi is in.

Cherie Chung, while cast as a pretty face in a lot of early roles, seemed to have an easier time getting good parts than Shu Qi did and Jennifer in An Autumn's Tale is certainly a good part.

I've been watching Hong Kong movies quite diligently for almost 9 years now and yet I just watched 1987's An Autumn's Tale today. To add further irony, this masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema is set almost entirely in New York City.

I think I dreaded siting through this thing because it looked like it was going to be one of those "opposites attract" romantic trifles. And while that "opposites" idea is here, this film is so amazingly understated for a 1980's Hong Kong film that I am a bit stunned.

Despite some early scenes where the NYC atmosphere is laid on a bit too thick -- not as bad as something like Rumble in the Bronx, but close for a few seconds -- the film uses location in a judicious manner, recalling a simpler version of the Hollywood romance scenes from something like Moscow on the Hudson.

The plot, laid out in other reviews, is simple: Jenny (Cherie) comes to NYC to go to school and find her boyfriend. She is assisted upon arrival by slobby distant cousin "Figurehead" (Chow Yun-Fat).

I would be lying if I said anything in this plot surprised me. No, of course any reasonably savvy viewer can see where things are going in this film. The surprise and real pleasure come from the way in which the film gets there.

If you can get past some of the 1980s distractions, you will be rewarded as a viewer with two of the most natural performances in modern Hong Kong cinema history.

Every time I watch a Cherie Chung film now, I recall watching Peking Opera Blues for the first time in 2001 and thinking how dispensable Cherie's cute role was -- how it was just one of those "pretty face" roles and how Brigitte Lin was the real star of that film -- or even Sally Yeh, really.

Now when I watch a Cherie film I am always surprised at what a fantastic and natural actress she was. I can think of no other actress from Hong Kong cinema who can use her facial expressions in such a masterful and subtle way. Cherie's eyes -- the way she looks down and then up sometimes, like in Hong Kong Hong Kong -- say everything that pages of dialogue would never be able to say as effectively.

She can portray a character thinking, let the audience see the action of her thought process at work -- quite a task for any actress, especially one with a beauty pageant background like Cherie.

Chow Yun-Fat, as well, is at his peak here. The things that make him annoying to some viewers -- including this one sometimes! -- are used to great effect. While it first seemed like he was playing the character a bit broadly, I gradually understood how much he was underplaying the role. He uses bits of costuming, or his smile, to convey a confidence mixed with a vulnerability that was quite charming.

The sequence where he is running on the street near the end of the film before he finds out that Jenny is leaving NYC is just wonderful. Chow Yun-Fat looks every bit the handsome leading man -- matinee idol good looks of an earlier era wrapped in a cheap thrift-store suit on the dirty streets of 1980s NYC. He projects confidence, innocence, a tiny bit of swagger, and a sudden sense of purpose.

I think my favorite scene in the film is the one in which Cherie sings a song on the telephone for the little suburban girl she used to babysit. As Cherie sings the simple and touching melody, the camera slowly pans past her and down the steps at a measured pace. Finally, the camera goes into Chow Yun-Fat's room and he leans to the side and stops reading. His expression looks like he can't quite decide whether to laugh, smile, or cry. There's a real joy in this scene that felt so real it was hard to believe it was made in 1987, an era when HK cinema was known more for unsubtle action than simple human emotion.

Like I said, the surprises in this film are not the plot points -- those are obvious within minutes of the two leads meeting -- but rather how the film progresses and the emotions revealed.

In the 20-minute interview with screenwriter Alex Law, the writer reveals that Midnight Cowboy was an inspiration for this film. And while that movie is one of my favorite 5 films of all time, I think this film is a bit more subtle and less eventful, surely.

In the aftermath of films like Midnight Cowboy, Hollywood took a few risks and those pre-Star Wars American films of the 1970s are some of my favorites. Those films felt like the characters were created first and the plot just a device to keep them together on screen for a few hours.

And that's true here; we know this story and we probably roughly know how it will end but watching Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung get there is a sublime pleasure.

It's worth mentioning the cinematography of James Hayman and David Chung Chi-Man -- NYC looks fantastic and the fall feel of the film comes through in most frames.

The sequence near the end where Cherie drives off with her boyfriend and Chow Yun-Fat runs after her and then slows down is just a wonder. I was amazed at how long the shots were in this sequence but the viewer gets to see not just a long scene of longing -- obviously -- but rather a shift in mood in minutes as Chow Yun-Fat's Figurehead goes from despair to resignation.

Those emotions in that long scene lead to the final reward of the film and the ending is just about perfect. Yes, a very tiny bit sappy but true to the story and characters and otherwise just right.

Sometimes when a film fades out at just the right moment without belaboring a point, I give it a few more points in my mind.

If the film had ended on a more obviously romantic note -- characters running to each other on a beach with string-music on the soundtrack -- I probably would have ended up hating the rest of the film. No, An Autumn's Tale's ending is as subtle and nuanced as the rest of the 98-minute masterpiece.

I watched the new 2005 FortuneStar DVD -- purchased at HMV in HK recently -- and the picture is anamorphic widescreen and remarkably free of surface scratches. The film clearly looks like a 1980s film but the imagery is crisp and colors very natural.

There are trailers for The Killer and Rouge on the first DVD and on the 2nd bonus DVD there is a 17-minute interview with director Mabel Cheung and a 20-minute interview with screenwriter Alex Law. The English subtitles, like those on the film itself, are clear and easy to read without any major typographical errors.

An overall HK masterpiece, really.

You can order the 2-DVD remastered edition of this film here.

(Here is a link to a great review and image gallery for the film from a Chow Yun-Fat fansite.)