Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, March 2, 2000
First, a bit of plot. Fly Me to Polaris is a fantasy youth romance, in which blind and mute Onion (Richie Ren) and young romantic nurse Autumn (Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi) fall in love without quite knowing it. Onion is quickly killed off in an accident. In a way-station on the path to heaven, an angel (Eric Kot) allows Ren five more days on Earth, with a catch: Ren will be able to see and speak, but he will be unrecognizable to everyone around him, and he is forbidden from revealing who he is. Returning to witness his own funeral, Ren finds Autumn in her grief, and tries to console her while recreating the love that they had never managed to express. Magically romantic things transpire with the aid of saxophones and meteor showers.
Even the most cynical, schmaltz-proof viewer (me) might find her- or himself struggling with embarrassment to stifle some sort of eye-tearing response at the end of this strangely effective little movie. One would think that such a pat, predictable, cloyingly uninspired cliché of a screenplay (by Law Chi-leung and Yeung Sin-ling) -- with its range from insipid banality to, well, even greater insipid banality -- would safely rule out this sort of affective reaction. Think again. Movies can work magic, in the persons, here, of director / cinematographer Jingle Ma Chor-sing and star Cecilia Cheung.
The film looks stunning: even incidental moments are lit with virtuostic technique and shot with a sensitive, fluidly mobile, perfectly placed camera. Jingle Ma, the d.p. of many of Hong Kong's most beautiful recent films (The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus, Drunken Master II, Fong Sai Yuk, The Private Eye Blues, Love is Not a Game But a Joke), here illuminates an unworthy story in such a way as to transcend its limitations. He finds a beauty, grace, and integrity that seem entirely outside the reach of the screenplay. One striking example: the doubling of Ren's character (a dead man returned in an unrecognizable body, forced to inhabit a second personality while reconnecting with the people he had loved) is mirrored visually by means of a montage trick with Cecilia Cheung (two parallel scenes are intercut: she's in a shopping mall, and she's at work, realizing in both that someone is secretly helping her, unseen, in each). Doublings redoubled; structure echoing story.
Magician number two is Cecilia Cheung, in only her second film. This nineteen-year-old actress somehow accomplishes what should be impossible: she gives her lines a depth and honesty that are nowhere to be found on the page. Although her costar Ren gives her no help at all (think of Wu Chien-lien struggling against Leon Lai in Eighteen Springs). See if your eyes can stay dry while watching the long take of her character struggle with finding, and losing her young love in the same moment, as her face swims in and out of focus, painted with her tears and Jingle Ma's play with depth-of-field.
Why, then, can this movie dignify such sappy material with such a generous treatment? Well, something is buried inside the story, an obsession with the pain of instant nostalgia, a life always on the verge of being, just now, lost to memory, achingly just beyond the grasp of experience. The best Hong Kong films of the moment are committed to exploring this particular sensation of loss and the pain and disorientation that results: Riley Yip's Metade Fumaca, Derek Chiu's Sealed With a Kiss, Wilson Yip's Bullets Over Summer. Fly Me To Polaris finds itself in good company, indeed.
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