|Love Will Tear Us Apart
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
It is difficult for a single review adequately to represent Yu Lik-wai's Love Will Tear Us Apart, but such an extraordinary film is worth the effort. It has so far received decidedly mixed reviews, given its remarkable history to date: it premiered in a "New Asian film and video" sidebar last April at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and then leapt directly into the 1999 Cannes official competition. I found it on a sloppily transferred commercial VCD (the Toronto Film Festival failed to program it, but Vancouver and Pusan did not make the same mistake).
Yu Lik-wai is a Hong Kong native, Beijing-resident cinematographer (of Jia Zhangke's remarkable Xiao Wu (1998) and Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes (1999)), who has won awards for his 1996 documentary Neon Goddesses. Love Will Tear Us Apart is his first feature, supported by a grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and by prominent producers Stanley Kwan and Tony Leung Kar-fai (it stars the latter).
If I had to fix Love Will Tear Us Apart on the Chinese film-making map, it would be somewhere between Fruit Chan's romantic meditations on post-1997 HK (for theme) and Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's essays on urban anomie (for style). The film follows 4 main characters, all former mainlanders resident in HK (reversing the direction of Yu's own migration). Yan Ying (Wang Ming) is a prostitute in her 20s, recently arrived from the North East via Shenzhen. Ah Jian (Tony Leung Kar-fai) runs a small porn video shop. He lives with Yan (Lu Liping), a former dance instructor on the mainland who now, in HK in her 30s, is an elevator operator at a restaurant. And Chun (Chow Chi-sang) is an elevator repairman.
The story follows these four characters, throwing them together in various combinations, testing their reactions to each others' presence. Among the incidents: Jian, rejected by a young lover, threatens feebly to kill himself. Later, he catches sight of Ying shoplifting, and decides to pursue her. Chun is assaulted by Jian and a crony when he declines to rent a porn video. Later, in revenge, Chun attempts to firebomb Jians video shop. Yan tells Ying the story of the car accident that killed her son and caused her to lose her right foot. Later, she tells a different version of the story to Chun, who is fixing the elevator where she works. Jian closes his shop. Ying returns to the mainland.
Lu Liping, one of China's best actresses, is perfect as the quietly suffering Yan: her subtle, delicate performance suggests depths of feeling with the most economical of means. Tony Leung Kar-fai is brave to have taken on the unattractive and taxing role of Jian: he creates a complex character whose disreputable and sometimes impenetrable facade masks a deeply troubled spirit. Newcomer Wang Jing makes an impressive debut in the central role of Ying. She is fascinating to watch in a part that demands both wild, choreographed extroversion and still, inarticulate, sequence-shot-length self-absorption. Chow Chi-sang's Chun is the only weak link here, leaving an impression that the scenes involving his character go on for just a bit too long.
A film like Love Will Tear Us Apart deliberately defies description. It is not at all a "whole" film: it shuns narrative, avoids character (in the sense of a character as a consistent, developing sort of identity), is both puzzlingly vague and utterly specific about place, and has an almost casual attitude towards chronology. But these features are what make Yu Lik-wai's debut feature such a striking, impossible to ignore crisis-call in Chinese cinema.
On the surface, it is a chamber piece with essentially four actors, juxtaposed in various ways; and it all takes place (barring a couple of significant excursions, and flashbacks) in what looks like a particularly grim and seedy part of Mongkok. Apart from this surface, what holds it together is its visual style. That and a kind of formal organisation (if it is appropriate to use the word) built out of echoes, recurrences, reverberations of images, colours, situations, and words, that wind their way through the film, lightly touching various characters as they are contained, briefly, in each one's ambit, then passed on, or around, to others, never quite settling, never finally pinned down.
Some of these circulating images:
-- a series of windows, barred with grills, but decorated gracefully, and painted in a gorgeous blue back light, in front of which Ying lingers
-- songs that the characters stop to listen to, rapt, temporarily transported: Teresa Teng ballads, a contemporary HK pop song, a bizarre glitzy TV number, a Maoist anthem
-- faces, obliterated and observed: those of Ying and her roommates, completely masked by a thick white paste; '40s film star Bai Ying's portrait, pinned down in Jian's memory as the perfect face, caught by Ying in a coloured postcard, then scrawled over by Chun
-- dance: anonymous couples in an anachronistically gilded ballroom; Ying's solo, rhapsodic ballet; Yan's memories of teaching social dancing on the mainland; finally, Ying dancing alone in the middle of a mainland disco crowd
-- radio and television, offering a soulless, background illumination and chatter for Chun, Yan, and Ying, and offering each of them a window out of their solitude, though one mediated by mass media's kitsch (the dull call-in sex radio show that Jian listens to, and Chun calls up; Yan's favourite televised epic PRC movies and tacky dance spectaculars)
These sequences of objects, sounds, and lights, knit carefully into the fabric of the movie, restore what is withheld from plot and characterization: the sense of a sustained, comprehensible, fully developed trajectory or structure. As if the film dares not only to show us empty lives, marked by boredom, vacancy, pointlessness, solitude -- lives drained of meaning -- but also refuses to stop there. It's not by any means a boring, affectless film, though it can be challenging for viewers, who have to suspend a sense of narrative expectation, and either fill in the "blanks" themselves, or wait until, eventually, Love Will Tear Us Apart fills one for them, though sometimes with more than one possible "answer".
It is as if the film gives to its viewers, but not its characters, a visible and audible scaffold, full of rhymes and repetitions, saturated with potential "sense", if only we could learn how to unpack it. Jean-Michel Frodon in Le Monde has described Love Will Tear Us Apart as an essay at synthesizing HK and mainland film, which is apt, I think .Hong Kong cinema has been looking outwards, towards the mainland, with a mixture of dread, anticipation, excitement, and denial since the early '80s. As that impetus for filmmaking finally plays itself out, Love Will Tear Us Apart shows a whole new world of possibilities, HK observed from the outside in, through "mainlanders'" eyes.
It is a point of view that fractures, dissolves (tears apart, even) what it finds there. But in doing so, opens up a space for once unimagined (or unimaginable) possibilities. This is the first film I am aware of that dares to map out a way in which a synthesis of Hong Kong and mainland China might release something new, exciting, liberating, full of potential for each territory.
A revised version of this review appeared in Cinemaya: the Asian Film Quarterly, no. 46, 1999
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