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December 07, 2010

Love in a Fallen City

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Qing cheng zhi lian
Ann Hui - 1984
IVL Region 3 DVD

As they walked farther, the mountains got taller. Either it was the wind blowing in the trees, or it was the moving shadow of a cloud, but somehow the greenish yellow lower slopes slowly darkened. Looking more closely. you saw that it wasn't the wind and it wasn't the clouds but the sun moving slowly over the mountain crest, blanketing the lower slope in a giant blue shadow. Up on the mountain, smoke rose from burning houses - white on the shaded slopes, black on the sunlit slopes - while the sun kept moving slowly over the mountain crest.
Eileen Chang translated by Karen S. Kingsbury

I've only recently been aware of the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, both in films that she has written, and films based on her writings. Chang might be best known currently as the literary source for Ang Lee's film, Lust, Caution. Exploring things further for myself, I recently read the collection of short stories, Love in a Fallen City. The parts of Chang's writings that lend themselves most readily to film are some of the descriptive paragraphs regarding locations, the use of color, so that what I imagine are the kind of shots that are to my mind almost like abstract paintings, that may not advance the narrative, but are appreciated for their visual beauty.

In something of the same spirit, the best moment of Ann Hui's film is dialogue free. Chow Yun-Fat and Cora Miao return to their house, partially destroyed and ransacked following the first days of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Miao looks on as Chow is seen scrubbing a floor clean. The shot says all that needs to be said about the changed dynamics between the two characters. What also makes the shot so powerful is that previous to this moment, Chow appears to have been the type of guy who never did anything resembling physical labor. It's at this moment that Chow's motives can no longer be questioned.

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The love is between a divorcee nearing thirty, Pai Liusu, and a businessman and reputed playboy, Fan Liuyuan. The two are brought together through mutual friends, primarily to fulfill social expectations based on Chinese traditions. To some extent they are opposites, he being the worldly, European educated man, she the self-identified country bumpkin from Shanghai. What initially ties them together is that they both feels themselves to be outsiders. Neither is quite sure of the other's intentions until the overwhelming cataclysm of war brings them together.

It's unfortunate that at this time, Love in a Fallen City is only available as a Region 3 DVD, because it presents a very different star than the one known for his action films. Not only does the film feature Chow Yun-Fat without guns, but this might be described as Chow Yun-Fat as Cary Grant. David Bordwell wrote a line about Chow being born to wear a tuxedo. I can't think of a contemporary actor who looks as comfortable in a formal tuxedo or a white suit, the way Chow appears in this film. As Fan, Chow looks like the kind of man whose idea of work is limited to a couple of phone calls or a few well chosen words to some trusted underlings. When, as Fan, he is scrubbing the floor, still in his suit, you can be certain the guy has nothing but love on his mind.

What may be the weakest part of Love in a Fallen City is that it is more faithful in reproducing Eileen Chang's dialogue, while giving her visual descriptions short shrift. The story has been remade as a mini-series, about which there is little available English language information. Even though Hui's film was a prestigious assignment by Shaw Brothers standards, there are too many moments where one senses that the film could have been improved by more money for more extras and bigger explosions, as well as more moments of purely visual story telling. The thought crossed my mind as to how different the film might also have been had Eileen Chang had written the screenplay, The DVD extras include a brief interview with Ann Hui, as well as fan Maggie Q gushing about how great Chow Yun-Fat looks in the film. Through production stills, I discovered that Stanley Kwan, later to direct his own adaptation of Chang, served as an assistant director. As for the actress who played Pai Liusu, Cora Miao retired from acting almost twenty years ago, which partially explains why she is not currently as well known as her some of her contemporaries. At a time when most Americans were unaware of Hong Kong cinema beyond martial arts movies, Miao made a couple of her final films with the American director who became her husband, Wayne Wang.

Posted by peter at December 7, 2010 08:50 AM