“Anna and Anna” is the latest from writer and director Aubrey Lam, previously responsible for “Twelve Nights” and “Hidden Track”, and who collaborated with Peter Chan on the scripts of several of his films including “Perhaps Love” and recent blockbuster hit “Warlords”. Here she takes on the ever-popular cinematic theme of the doppelganger, mainly as a means of exploring the dualities and contradictions of the lives of women in modern China. The film’s biggest draw is the fact that in the two lead roles it features popular and talented Canadian-Chinese actress Karena Lam, who has been building up a solid body of work including the likes of “Koma”, “Silk” and “Kidnap”.
The film starts by following one half of the titular duo, a glamorous, high powered business woman living in Singapore, who on the surface at least seems to have it all, from the expensive apartment right down to the rough and ready but sensitive rocker boyfriend (Tender Huang, also in Leste Chen’s Taiwanese horror “The Heirloom”). Still, something seems to be missing, and she is frequently tortured by dreams and visions of a childhood incident, which seemed to result in her splitting into two people.
After being transferred to Shanghai, she coincidentally comes across her other half who even more coincidentally just happens to be married to her ex-boyfriend, the possibly clinically depressed pianist Ouyang (Lu Yi, recently in Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords”) who she had left behind some years ago following an abortion. Curious to know what her life would have been like if she had stayed with him, Singapore Anna suggests that they swap places for three days, something which needless to say doesn’t work out exactly as planned.
Although the premise of “Anna and Anna” seems like a natural fit for the evil twin and identity theft route, director Lam confounds expectations but taking the film in another direction entirely. Basically a wistful ‘what if’ urban adult fantasy piece with vaguely sinister undertones and a burgeoning social conscience, the film is an ambiguous, wilfully obscure examination of the two different ways that the life of the central character(s) could have turned out based upon one momentous decision.
Whilst this does mean that viewers expecting more of a thriller may well be disappointed, the film works well according to these modest aims, and manages to be both thoughtful and unsettling. By steadfastly refusing to provide any definitive explanations as to how or why the split occurred, or indeed even if it really did, Lam lends the film a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere which effectively pulls the viewer into the characters and their lives.
Given the nature of the plot, it should come as no surprise that there is a great deal in the way of coincidence and fate, though this is embraced and made part of its philosophical part rather than being used as a narrative device, and so it never jars or annoys. Certainly, the film is more of a character-based mood piece than anything else, though one that does retain enough semblance of plot to keep things structured and interesting, albeit without ever actually going anywhere or drawing any real conclusions.
To a large extent the film rests upon the shoulders of Karena Lam, and thankfully she proves up to the difficult task of the dual role, bringing both woman to convincing life as different characters through subtle mannerisms and facial expressions – though it has to be said that her job is made a little easier by the fact that the two Annas are kept emotionally at arms length, with Lam never attempting to make the film a moving experience. The pivotal duality also works thanks to some excellent, seamless camera work, which allows the two to appear on screen without any glaring use of special effects or the usual kind of obvious mirror shots. The film as a whole benefits from an immaculate visual construction, with Lam managing to work in all manner of symbolic doublings and splits, though thankfully in a relatively subtle and restrained manner.
This too adds to the impression of “Anna and Anna” being a considered, literally reflective slice of psychological character drama rather than a thriller and helps to deflect from the essential silliness of the central plot. Certainly, it is a film likely to split viewers, and those hoping to see Karena Lam in another piece of genre entertainment should be warned. However, for viewers willing to keep an open mind the film does provide an engaging and interesting meditation not only on the lot of modern Chinese women, but on how all of our lives are shaped by the choices we make and indeed the responsibility we take for our actions.
Oi Wah Lam (director) / Man-Lung Chow, Oi Wah Lam, Sin-Ngor Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Tender Huang … Billy
Kar Yan Lam … Anna / Siyu
Yi Lu … Ouyang