Romancing In Thin Air (Gao hai ba zhi lian II)

Hong Kong (2012) Dir. Johnnie To

Michael Lau (Louis Koo) is a hugely popular star in Hong Kong and upon winning an acting award, proposes to his co-star and girlfriend Yuanyuan (Gao Yuanyuan). Unfortunately at the wedding Yuanyuan’s first love Zhang Xing (Wang Baoqiang) arrives from Beijing to interrupt the wedding and Yuanyuan chooses Xing over Michael. Humiliated and heartbroken Michael goes on a nationwide bender to drown his sorrows and with the paparazzi on his tail, he ends up at in the mountains at the high altitude Deep Woods Hotel managed by Sue (Sammi Cheng), a woman clinging on to flimsy hope that her missing husband Tien (Li Guangjie) might return.

For many – including yours truly – Johnnie To is well known for his crime thrillers and Triad gangster flicks, such as Fulltime Killer, Exiled, Sparrow, Breaking News, PTU and the two Election films. He even dabbled in comedy with My Left Eye Sees Ghosts and the all female action hero caper Heroic Trio but romance would seemingly be the last genre To would have a bash at. Apparently not as 2000’s Needing You… and Romancing in Thin Air clearly demonstrate – with both films starring Sami Cheng, returning to the screen after a three year absence.

Even with a genre that relies on simplicity To manages to throw his usual twists into the proceedings. Michael has it all but his life comes crashing down after being jilted at the altar and suddenly all he wants is drink and anonymity. The stern Sue is holding on the past keeping everything at the hotel as it was when Tien went missing seven years earlier.

Michael’s arrival and subsequent drunken wrecking spree which sees many of Tien’s possessions fall victim does little to ingratiate himself to his host – despite the fact she is a massive fan of his with a huge collection of memorabilia stashed away in a back room. Perhaps this is why Sue lets Michael stay on instead of kicking him out – much the delight of her two staff and fellow Michael fans Beauty (Sun Jiayi) and Teeny (Yang Yi).

Signs of a romance predictably blossoming appear when Sue’s fandom (she’s fan club member No 33) is revealed but not in any overt tactile manner which makes a change from massaging the sentimental bone of the viewer as other romance films tend to do. When a back pack belonging to Tien is found all bets are off as Sue flips out but Michael is there to bring her back down to earth.

So far so good but the final act suddenly squeezes in a whole catalogue of nonsense to provide one of To’s keep ’em guessing endings. Michael returns to Hong Kong to resume his film career with a new movie he has written which is Sue and Tien’s story. This is why the original Chinese title has a “II” at the end of it – this isn’t a sequel to a prior film but Michael’s film within the film is the second film… if that makes any sense.

To is usually a master story teller and as alluded to above, his twisting denouements leave the viewer spellbound but here, the attempts to pull on the heartstrings and get the tears flowing trip over themselves in a ball of confusion that runs at fast forward speed. The film in a film idea is cute but in this context just feels cheesy and a ham fisted attempt to swerve the audience with something clever.

Whatever faults the final act of this film has, everything that precedes it is not too bad and while it falls into many rom com style habits, has some fun moments. Sue’s po-faced approach to Michael’s presence and her handling of Beauty and Teeny’s worshipping of said sloshed superstar is quote amusing as are the antics of equally smitten doctor (Tien Nu).

One thing that can’t be denied is the effort of the cast, in particular Sammi Cheng who carries the film with her time lapsing performance as Sue. It is remarkable to see her character change from a young and spirited woman to a closed in figure holding onto a lost love, for whom changed is forced upon her after Michael enters her life. Louis Koo is right at home playing a heart throb even when he is a bearded mess for most of the film, he isn’t really stretched too much. The rest of cast – including a wasted cameo from Huang Yi as Michael’s bossy agent Barbara – are merely comedic supporting characters.

Presentation wise, Johnnie To has delivered a good looking and well shot film which for the most part is well paced, well acted and well told until the car crash ending. Perhaps this was deliberate because this one of his concession films – i.e – a commercial film he makes to appease the studios rather than something to suit his own whims. Who knows? To has made better films and while this is far from his worse, it doesn’t live up to its obvious potential which is a shame.