Comrades: Almost a Love Story May 3, 2019
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
omrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) is a romantic movie that, like other features with “love story” in the title, from the famously blue Love Story (1970) to the awesomely cynical Enemies, A Love Story (1989), serves as a two-hour example of romance, despite what the movies typically tell us, turning into an almost comically complicated pursuit.
The film begins in 1986 and spans about a decade. It imputes to one of the more infuriating narrative styles to show up in a romantic drama: the premise being that its central lovers are undoubtedly right for each other but that, because of unlucky circumstances, are consistently pushed away from one another. The main relationship grows to become almost as defined by its mutual affection as it is its long periods of separation.
In Comrades: Almost a Love Story, the in-love protagonists are Xiao-Jun (Leon Lai) and Qiao (Maggie Cheung), who, at the beginning of the movie, relocate from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong around the same time. They meet at a McDonald’s, where Qiao is trying to make gains as a cashier. Xiao-Jun and Qiao don’t immediately hit it off. The former is tongue-tied and shy, and is here simply because he wants to make enough of a life for himself so that his fiancée can move in with him. Qiao is an almost humorously ambitious extrovert intent on becoming wealthy, and quickly so.
First, Xiao-Jun and Li are pals — confessing, at separate times, that they have no other person at the moment whom they would call a friend — then they’re lovers, and devoted ones at that. But a roundelay of distractions get in the way of them fully committing to each other — not being limited Xiao-Jun’s already-in-place romantic responsibilities. Nearly 10 years pass after they separate for the first time.
This is the sort of sweeping material fit to be reused for romantic dramas in abundance. Yet the movie, which was written by Ivy Ho and directed by Peter Chan, is told and acted with such freshness that, if the ever-familiar narrative ever stoops to stock (which it really doesn’t), it isn't all that noticeable. Chan captures the loneliness that follows Xiao-Jun and Qiao like personalized rainclouds effectively; Ho subtly but adeptly renders distinct characters credible individually and cogent when together.
One of the things I like best about her screenplay is her way of smartly highlighting how much diaspora plays a part in how Xiao-Jun and Qiao live. Their understanding of themselves, and their relationship with each other, is distinguished by out-of-placeness — an inescapable feeling of incongruity with a new culture. Ho is also terrific at writing achingly romantic scenes that elsewhere might be dubbed schmaltzy. (Here, they're welcome.) The finale, which I’ll talk about later, being one, the other a moment when Lai gets out of Cheung’s car, having just said goodbye to her for what might be the last time, but comes back to give her a slow-motion kiss after she accidentally honks the horn.
Lai and especially Cheung have the right kind of charisma — perhaps even what might be considered an old-fashioned sort of charisma — to make a film so thronged with frustration be worth it in the end. They’re plainly likable, but they also seize the particulars of their characters as to make their contradictions and neuroses believable, not contrived.
They also help pull off one of the chintziest— yet most rewarding — happy endings I’ve seen in a romantic drama in a while. Throughout the film, allusions are made to the Chinese singer Teresa Tang, whose music comes to be a signifier of Xiao-Jun and Qiao’s relationship. Just before the film ends, news of her death sweeps the globe, and, once it makes its way into the characters’ ears, is evidently devastating. Ultimately, it’s Tang’s real-life demise that works as the catalyst for a long-delayed reunification. How exactly I won’t say, but what I will say is that the fierce likability of Lai and Cheung makes it so that, by the end of Comrades: Almost a Love Story, I couldn’t care less whether Ho’s Nora Ephron-ready reunion-cute was almost laughably elaborate. I was just glad to get to that moment. B+