Although current critic and fanboy favourite Johnnie To is best known for his action thrillers and crime dramas, his career, which now spans nearly thirty years, has seen him tackle pretty much every genre imaginable. Given this, and the fact that his Milkyway production company has a tendency to spread itself between quirky and more straight cinematic fare, it shouldn’t come across as too much of a surprise that the acclaimed director has with his latest film “Linger” decided to take another stab at melodrama.
Certainly, To has had success with the form in the past, having helmed the award winning “All About Ah-Long” back in 1989 and “The Story of my Son” in 1990, and the film does have a pedigree in the form of writer Ivy Ho, who won awards for her scripts for Peter Chan’s “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” and Ann Hui’s “July Rhapsody”. As such, although “Linger” may initially at least not appear to be as appealing a prospect for fans as say another “Election” film might have been, it is not without interest, and indeed offers To a change of pace after dealing with so many angst ridden criminals and oddball policemen.
The film gets right down to business as student Dong (F4 popster Vic Chou, here making his acting debut) is killed in a motorbike accident whilst chasing after his girlfriend Yan (Mainland Chinese actress Li Bingbing, also in “A World Without Thieves”) following a heated argument as to whether or not she really loves him. Fast forward a few years and Yan is working as a lawyer’s assistant and is still struggling to come to terms with her loss, relying on anti-depressants and sleeping pills to get her through the lonely days and nights. After her doctor advises her to stop taking the medication and to try and get on with her life, Dong mysteriously starts showing up, still intent on knowing if she truly love him – a question she has never really answered in her own heart.
“Linger” certainly feels like a modern Johnnie To film, being expertly shot, mildly eccentric and featuring supporting turns from a number of the usual Milkyway suspects, including Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Maggie Siu. Although he reins in his directorial style somewhat, giving the film a low key, almost ambient feel, he still works in plenty of nice little touches such as Yan’s pills spelling out messages and the occasional appearances of symbolic butterflies. To distract from the inherent familiarity of the basic story, the film does include some variations in the form of weird and occasionally disturbing visions, and some decidedly tangential subplots, which To fits in quite comfortably alongside the inevitable flashbacks and scenes of characters staring longingly off into the distance.
Although a melodrama and despite the determinedly ethereal plinking of the soundtrack, the film is strangely bereft of emotion, with To seemingly more interested in the psychological and spiritual aspects of the premise. Whilst this might make the proceedings a little cold and stiff for viewers expecting a more traditional genre weepy, it does add a certain suspicion that there might be some abstract depth lurking beneath the film’s simplicity. However, this is to an extent giving To the benefit of the doubt, as the film never really seems to aspire towards any kind of meaning or effective narrative conclusion. In part, this feeling of vague ambiguity is also the result of the unconventional characters, with Li Bingbing’s Yan being neurotic, frail and twitchy, and not necessarily all that sympathetic, making a change from the kind of dewy eyed angelic heroines who tend to populate this kind of film. Vic Chou turns in a decent performance as the possibly ghostly Dong, having fun with the role in places, and though he too lacks any real emotional depth, he manages to frown and look hurt when required.
Though “Linger” is undeniably a relatively minor effort by his high standards, even an average Johnnie To film is arguably preferable to the more accomplished works of most other Hong Kong film makers. Whilst it confounds by never offering either enough emotional or intellectual meat, it entertains enough in its own wispy way and is certainly worth watching, either for fans of the director or for anyone looking for a little light meditation on the themes of life and love.
Johnnie To (director) / Ivy Ho (screenplay)
CAST: Roy Cheung … Dr. Yuen
Panda Ivy … Gia (voice: Cantonese version)
Bingbing Li … Gia
Dave Taylor … Judge
Vic Zhou … Tung