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Although best known internationally for his action films and triad thrillers, legendary Hong Kong director Johnnie To has enjoyed huge popularity domestically with romantic comedies and dramas, having collaborated with screenwriter Wai Ka Fai on numerous occasions to great success. Following on from their 2011 outing “Don’t go Breaking my Heart”, the duo team up again for “Romancing in Thin Air”, which also sees the return to the genre of actress Sammi Cheng, who memorably starred for To and Wai in their classic “Needing You” back in 2000. The film also features a fine leading man in Louis Koo, and a top drawer supporting cast of familiar faces that includes Gao Yuanyuan (“Don’t go Breaking my Heart”), Wang Baoqiang (“Love for Life”), Crystal Huang (“East Meets West”), Wilfred Lau (“Overheard 2”), Tanny Tien (“The Jade and the Pearl”), and Li Guangjie.
The film starts with Koo as megastar actor Michael, who is watched by the whole nation on live television as his wife to be, actress and co-star Yuanyuan (Gao Yuanyuan) abandons him at the altar and heads off with her childhood love (Wang Baoqiang). Hitting the road and the bottle, Michael wanders the country before ending up at the Deep Woods Inn deep in the wilds of China’s Yunnan Province. The inn is run by a woman called Sue (Sammi Cheng), who allows him to stay, helps him to cut back his drinking and nurses him towards physical and emotional health. However, although the two inevitably become close, Sue is still haunted by the disappearance of her husband (Li Guangjie) some seven years back, who got lost in the forest, his body never found.
“Romancing in Thin Air” certainly has all the hallmarks of a Johnnie To-Wai Ka Fai collaboration, with a character driven approach and a more everyday vibe than most other recent wish fulfilment fantasy style Chinese romances. The film does feel old fashioned in this respect, and definitely in a good way, taking its time to allow the viewer to really connect with the two leads, patiently building up their background and showing a great eye for small but vitally important emotional details. The story itself, though familiar and prone to melodramatic tangents, is a strong one, and there’s an air of tragedy to the proceedings which mixes well with the film’s more playful aspects. Both Michael and Sue are appealing, sympathetic characters, and the script does a good job of littering their path to happiness with obstacles without ever getting too manipulative, even if the eventual truth regarding her husband stretches things a little.
To is as good at handling this kind of material as he is guns and knives, and the film looks gorgeous throughout, making excellent use of the stunning Yunnan scenery. The film is filled with aerial shots and views of the snowy mountains and forests, and though it verges at times on postcard tourism, it still maintains the grounded feel crucial to its down to earth, real life ambitions. To also manages to get the best out of his stars, and really, the film really does belong to Cheng, who still has the ability to be utterly charming, and is one of the few Hong Kong actresses who can truly light up the screen with her smile. Convincing and likeable, she adds warmth and depth to her role, which in turn makes her pairing with the charismatic Koo believable and affecting. Despite its title, the film isn’t particularly romantic as such, though is moving and thoughtful in its depiction of two wounded people trying to move on from painful pasts and find happiness.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite get everything right, and falters during the third act, when it moves away from its earlier somewhat fun, bittersweet tone into heavier territory, taking itself more seriously than necessary in the process. Though there’s nothing too ponderous, the script does take things a step too far, with a film theme that has the viewer watching the characters watching other characters play out their emotions on screen. This film within a film gambit is clever enough, and there’s no doubting what To and Wai were aiming for, but it doesn’t work quite as planned, not least since the film industry side of the script till that point had mainly been used for amusing gags and knowing winks.
Though this prevents “Romancing in Thin Air” from reaching the heights of other To-Wai romances, it by no means sinks the film, and it still has plenty to offer fans of their work. Given a major boost, as ever, by the presence of Sammi Cheng, its character driven approach and mostly effective storytelling certainly mark it as superior to most other Chinese genre films of the last year.
Johnnie To (director) / Jevons Au Man-Kit, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Sammi Cheng