Princess D (2001) Movie Review

About halfway through the Hong Kong drama “Princess D,” a character that has suffered a mental breakdown is visiting her incarcerated husband; in a heartbreaking scene, the woman silently tries (but is unable) to understand why there is a glass partition between her and her husband, and although she can see him, why she can’t also touch him. It’s that kind of scenes that makes me wish “Princess D” had remained faithful to itself, instead of taking a step backward for every two steps it takes forward.

“Princess D” concerns a computer games designer name Joker (Daniel Wu, “Hit Team”) who becomes obsessed with tough girl Ling (Angelica Lee) after he accidentally downs a drink filled with hallucinogens and gets the bright idea to turn Ling into a computer game heroine. Obviously the making of the game is only a side story, since Joker is really enraptured with the whole idea of turning the bad-girl Ling into a fantasy princess. Ling herself dreams of being a princess (and even has a photo of the late Princess Di on her wall), but family problems keep her firmly grounded in reality.

The heart and soul of “Princess” is Angelica Lee as the complex Ling. Lee is simply an outstanding actress, and her recent performance in the Pang brothers’ “The Eye” will convince anyone who isn’t already convinced that this little woman is a force to be reckon with. It is Ling’s story and her struggles to save her family that keeps “Princess” from turning stale.

Staleness, unfortunately, is a very real problem for “Princess,” which is unable to keep from turning dull whenever it meanders back to the neverending quest of brothers Joker and Kid (Edison Chen, “Dance of a Dream”) to get their game off the ground. It is this inability to distinguish between a great thing (Ling) and a somewhat dull thing (Joker and Kid) by writers/directors Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen that prevents “Princess D” from being a flawless film.

As it stands, “Princess” is a gut wrenching and truly heartbreaking film for most of its running length. When it’s good, it is extremely good. And it gets good every time Ling returns home to face her mother, who is quickly regressing backwards to a child state, and her brother Sam (Yik Lam Wong), who is unable to find the courage to take responsibility for his actions. The almost inconceivable problem with Sam is that he knows he’s burdening his sister, and it is his inability to lighten her load that anguishes him to no end. He’s not a bad kid, it’s just that compared to Ling’s seemingly limitless ability to absorb pain and misery for the sake of her family, he’s just not up to the task. And the imperative word here is “seemingly.”

Despite the fact that it is Joker’s world of gaming that allows the tortured Ling to escape her problems for a few hours, the movie does falter quite a bit when its attention leans too much toward Joker and Kid. Although even this sidetrack is saved by the presence of Anthony Wong (“Gen Y Cops”), who plays the gaming duo’s father, a dancing instructor who is seeing his livelihood shrinking until he has only one student left. Wong gives a soulful performance as the long-suffering father who must deal with a slacker son (Kid) who has made a career out of getting fired, and Joker, who has more dreams than he does practical ideas.

And yet Wong’s character shoulders on, because he must. Why? Because that is his most important job as a father, as it is Ling’s most important job as the caretaker of her family now that her father is imprisoned. This is the theme that runs through most of “Princess D” — the shouldering of one’s responsibilities despite the odds or pain. A real man is one who asks, but doesn’t demand. A real woman is one who realizes she’s a family’s only possible route of escape from certain doom and doesn’t shy away, no matter how much she may want to.

Chang and Yuen, who sometimes mixes real life with the computer gaming world, directs “Princess D” with sure hands. There is almost no action to speak of except for a scene early in the film when Joker hallucinates Ling taking on an army of thugs in an alley. It is, of course, just a hallucination, because although she’s tough and sure on the outside, Ling is crumbling into tiny shattered pieces on the inside as her problems mount. The budding romance between Ling and Joker is also handled well by the directors. The word that most describes this film’s romance is “mature.”

And then a very big problem occurs toward the end. Here, Chang and Yuen make the mistake of turning their film into something that resembles a Walt Disney production. It is a bad mistake on their part, mostly because the duo lacks faith in the audience’s ability to invest in Ling’s cause. We are so heavily invested in Ling that we can accept a tough outcome to a tough situation if — and only if — it rings true. Instead, we get a Disney-inspired outcome to a nailbiting sequence that just ruins everything. The writers/directors abandoned ship when they absolutely had no reason to.

The ending coda also destroys everything. Instead of a film about life and reality and responsibility and the shouldering of all three with strength and honor — not because we are forced to, but because it’s who we are as responsible human beings — the film instead takes a dip into the land of the fantastical. Yes, this strange turn somewhat fits in with the movie’s themes of a backstreet girl turning into a princess (re: dreams can come true), but it also undermine all that we’ve shared with Ling so far.

Regardless, “Princess D” will probably be known for the movie that made Angelica Lee (or Lee Sin-je in Chinese) a star. If her turn in “The Eye” proves anything, it’s that Lee will only get better with each film. Although from her heartbreaking performance here and mesmerizing turn as a woman haunted by ghosts in “The Eye,” that may seem close to impossible.

Sylvia Chang, Alan Yuen (director) / Sylvia Chang, Alan Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Wu …. Joker
Edison Chen …. Kid
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang …. Joker’s Father
Pat Ha …. Ling’s Mother
Yik Lam Wong …. Sam
Angelica Lee … Ling

Buy Princess D on DVD