While watching Johnnie To’s “Yesterday Once More”, I kept waiting for someone to pull a gun. And why not? To has, in recent years, almost single-handedly kept Hong Kong in the action movie game. The king of the crime genre has returned in 2004 with not one, not two, but three movies — the slick crime film “Breaking News”, the excellent action/drama “Throw Down”, and now the romance “Yesterday Once More”. Compared to To’s other 2004 offerings, “Yesterday” will leave you satisfied, but by no means impressed.
Stars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng are old hands playing lovers under the direction of To, the trio having worked together on two previous romantic comedies, in 2000’s “Needing You” and 2001’s “Love on a Diet”. With “Yesterday Once More”, Lau and Cheng plays Mr. and Mrs. Thief (their character’s real names are never mentioned), married professional thieves who, in the film’s prologue, divorce when Mr. Thief declares their marriage over and simply walks away. Two years later, Mrs. Thief is about to get married again, this time to the buffoonish Steve (Carl Ng, who for some odd reason speaks most of his lines in English, even though everyone responds back in Chinese). Steve is the ultimate momma’s boy, and whose momma doesn’t care for her future daughter-in-law. And with good reason too, since Mrs. Thief’s only reason for accepting Steve’s proposal is to steal his family heirloom, a necklace.
Unfortunately someone has decided to butt in on Mrs. Thief’s well-planned jewel heist. Back from oblivion, Mr. Thief steals the necklace out from underneath Mrs. Thief’s nose and inserts himself back into her life. Mrs. Thief is determined to get her husband to confess so she can steal it back from him. Meanwhile, Steve’s mom, a woman with a history of thievery herself, has nefarious plans of her own. Along the way, the mom hires Shiu Hung Hui (a Milkyway Production regular) to investigate the divorced thieves. Hui has an overweight partner who may or may not be his male lover, since they hand feed each other food at dinner and are constantly arguing like husband and wife.
Once Mr. Thief whisks the necklace away from Mrs. Thief, much of the film is devoted to the criminal duo as they go about Hong Kong and other exotic locales (there is a stop off in Italy for some odd reason) stealing and inflicting mental anguish on each other. Or, actually, Mrs. Thief seems to have the whole “get him where it hurts” down, whereas Mr. Thief seems to be on a quest to teach his ex-wife what it means to cherish someone over shiny inanimate objects. Quite a task, since Sammi Cheng’s Mrs. Thief is a bit of a cold fish. The Third Act inevitably throws in a melodramatic twist, the kind Asian filmgoers just eat up by the busload.
“Yesterday Once More” is actually more Romantic Comedy than a Heist Film. Apart from the heist early in the film, and what amounts to a repeat of the first heist at the end, there really aren’t a lot of clever scams going on. Most of the film features Mr. and Mrs. Thief inflicting emotional damage onto one another, even as they scam various people, including a rather unscrupulous taking of an elderly couple that sells wine, which makes our heroes something of jerks. We’re supposed to root for these two immoral jerks after they’ve nonchalantly ripped off, and probably bankrupted, two old people just trying to earn a living? I smell poor characterization.
Without a doubt, Johnnie To has done better work. Which isn’t to say “Yesterday” is not entertaining, because it is — in a fluffy, unimportant sort of way. The jazz-infused soundtrack lends to the movie’s breezy feel, and the fluid camerawork and sure narrative storytelling makes “Yesterday” slightly better than the average Hong Kong film. Slightly. Andy Lau, coming off the big-budgeted and much-hyped “The House of Flying Daggers”, does good work as a clever thief hiding a secret from his ex-wife, who he still loves with a passion. Lau has always been an affable actor, and he remains so here.
Sammi Cheng, on the other hand, is saddled with a simply unlikable character. You can’t really understand what Mr. Thief sees in her besides her propensity for stealing everything in sight and whining like a baby when she doesn’t get her way. Really, the character is very unattractive, making for long stretches of eye rolling because the script keeps trying to convince us she’s worth all the headache the men in the film are going through just to get her in the sack. Maybe it’s the fault of Cheng the actor, or perhaps the character as written. Either way, Mrs. Thief is one of those women you’d like to throw off a yacht and watch drown just for fun. The film’s Third Act changes her personality completely, and because the change is so out of left field, the audience will have trouble swallowing it. Well, non-Hong Kong audiences, anyway.
“Yesterday Once More” is not a bad film by any means. It’s a big-budget Hong Kong production, and To has enough flair to make even the most average film decent. But this is far from To’s best work, and if anything it’s too shallow for its own good, not to mention overly familiar and unoriginal. The melodramatic twist ending is pure Chinese cheese, and except for Hong Kong moviegoers, who just love this stuff, I’m not sure if anyone else will buy it.
Johnnie To (director) / The Hermit, Au Kin yee (screenplay)
CAST: Sammi Cheng …. Mrs. Thief
Andy Lau …. Mr. Thief
Carl Ng …. Steve
Shiu Hung Hui ….