Hong Kong, 1998
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
Scruffy but irresistibly attractive Yau Muk-yan (Aaron Kwok), without a job or a place to live, moves in with sensitive, shy piano tuner Chan Kar-fu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Both are disturbed, then obsessed, by the amateurish piano playing of upstairs neighbour Mok Man-yee (Kelly Chan). Obsession turns to romance, and romance to fantasy...
The Anna Magdalena of the title refers to the well-known conservatory keyboard piece by J.S. Bach, the Menuet in G, from the Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach 1725. The film is loosely based on this little piece: it is structured in four "movements", which are announce by titles: two themes, a duet, and a set of variations. The first three parts set up the amorous triangle between Kwok, Chan, and Kaneshiro's characters. The fourth (Variations) is a wild fantasy on the previous material.
I'm not sure the tone quite worked: the casting of the three leads, youth idols all, suggests that the film is aiming at a youth-culture feel, and a correspondingly young audience (following the trend of many of last year's "groups of guys wooing groups of women" genre movies: Cause We Are So Young, Love is not a Game But a Joke, Love Amoeba Style, Feel 100% Once More).
But UFO's -- United Filmmakers Organization, the about-to-be disbanded [?] film production company that featured Peter Chan, Lee Chi-ngai, James Yuen, and Jacob Cheung -- vaguely French cinema, chatty-urbanites tone, with lots of polish and a relatively "philosophical" script by Ivy Ho, pulls the film in another direction, towards UFO's Westernized young-HK-urban-professional market (which was extremely well served by their lovely Lost and Found, from 1996). I'm not sure the tone of the film settles into either groove, and this uncertainty keeps Anna Magdalena frequently off-balance, for me.
We're treated to beautiful cinematography, by Peter Pau (The Killer, The Bride With White Hair), who hasn't done a lot of HK films lately (has he gone to Hollywood, too?). But, again, his work here is explicitly stylized, in a more "European", self-consciously arty mode. I'm thinking of the almost non-stop crane work, especially the striking, long, single shot scene in which we look from outside into Kaneshiro's apartment, then crane up into Chan's, overhead, just as Kwok walks in, then back down to Kaneshiro's. Here, everything works: the shot is technically dazzling, to be sure. But it is also a narrative coup: it heightens the power and the shock of seeing Kwok -- unexpectedly -- so comfortably installed in Chan's life. Well, maybe not so much of a coup. Truffault's Jules et Jim (1961) -- the locus classicus of the modern romantic-triangle genre -- has an almost identical elaborate crane shot. So Anna Magdalena's is more like a tongue-in-cheek nod to its predecessor.
More often than not, however, effects such as these stand out as set pieces: they are not sufficiently integrated into the film's narrative structure.
And there's the question of pacing. Director Hai Chung-man doesn't seem to be able sufficiently to control the first three quarters of the film: the tempo frequently slacks off; there's no rhythm to the scenes, no guiding sense of shaping the way the story moves through time.
On the other hand, Anna Magdalena really takes off in its last movement: the fantasy sequence. It wasn't until the end that I realized that this sequence is doubly mediated: we are watching the assistant book editor's (Anita Yuen) imagination of what Kaneshiro's character has written, in his romance novel. And that novel is his projection into Gothic fantasy-land of his own wished-for, unrealised romantic life with Chan. Tricky, and it somehow works. The wild caped-love-crusader thing is fun to watch, although Ivy Ho and Hai Chung-man lose control of the material late in the movie, when they start loading on buckets of sentimental syrup.
Nevertheless, in these Gothic sequences, filmed in Vietnam, there's often a kind of cinematic magic (even more crane shots!) that eluded the film's earlier sections. Peter Pau one-ups his own and John Woo's epiphany-in-a-cathedral scene (from The Killer) with even more candles and doves. We watch a stunningly beautiful shot of Chan and Kaneshiro, silhouetted against a galaxy of candles: there is something ineffably spiritual and emotional about this shot: a shimmering romantic haze that takes the film farther in a direction that the screenplay, on its own, can't seem to reach.
One other cinematography note: Pau's way of shooting Kelly Chan in close-up -- her stunningly luminous face can just leap out of the screen, straight to your heart -- hints at what she might be able to do if she concentrated on a screen career (she's primarily a pop-star singer / youth idol). Kaneshiro gives another of his now-standard soulful loner performances -- time to exercise some diversified role selection, before it's too late. Aaron Kwok kind of coasts through the film, working lightly against his star persona.
Anna Magdalena, then, is one of this year's most ambitious films, if not its most consistently realized. UFO films have consistently taken on the very difficult task of creating contemporary urban myths: The Age of Miracles, He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father, Lost and Found, the "Ripe Banana Time" series [Ji de ... xiang jiao cheng: 1, 2, 3] and in a darker vein, Heaven Can't Wait, have all poised themselves somewhere between urban realism and a kind of East Asian magic-realism: skirting the edge of romance and fantasy. Anna Magdalena misses that edge, with its overly enthusiastic embrace of the magical. And with its parts out of harmony, it misses the top rung of UFO's oeuvre.
Their strength, and their weakness at the same time, is that they believe that this task is possible without any radical breaks with the past. This is what separates them from filmmakers otherwise as varied as Wong Kar-wai, Wai Ka-fai, and now Fruit Chan, who respond to what they feel to be a irreconcilable rupture in Hong Kong's history with a radical new film art. One has to applaud UFO for their consistent dedication to what I think is a virtually impossible task, one doomed to failure because it's based on a false premise. Nevertheless, if the company has actually disbanded, Chinese cinema will miss their intelligence, professionalism, respect for their audience, love for their craft, and humane vision of what filmmaking can try to accomplish.
email the website editor
all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer