'A Tale of Three Cities' ('San Cheng Ji'): Film Review

Courtesy of Huayi Brothers Media
Serious but unwieldy melodrama.

The wartime courtship of Jackie Chan's parents inspires Mabel Cheung's Toronto-bound historical saga.

A man squashed by a collapsed clock tower, a corpse covered by ticking watches: these two images spells out very loudly the dominant theme running through the latest film by Hong Kong filmmaking duo Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. Revolving around a couple's relationship in wartorn China of the 1930s and 1940s, A Tale of Three Cities offers an epic period drama about individuals overwhelmed by the times, their trajectories shaped by rapidly changing circumstances beyond their control.

While the two leading protagonists will eventually survive calamities in China to live happily ever after — hardly a spoiler as the film begins in 1951, with both characters still alive and kicking — A Tale of Three Cities' trajectory seems less certain. Just as its Dickensian title suggests, Cheung's film — the veteran's first feature in nearly 14 years — harks back to a distant age where bombastic, po-faced melodramas were all the rage. Indeed, this is one lavishly mounted epic, complete with Tim Yip's beautiful production design and Law's slow-burning, lyrical screenplay.

Just like the man who perished under that fallen clock, however, Cheung and Law have floundered under the heavy weight of history. While falling short of crafting an engaging decade-hopping narrative, their traditionalist and overtly serious approach is perhaps at odds with the demands of an increasingly youth-dominated and thrill-seeking market in mainland China. A Tale of Three Cities certainly unfolds with its fair share of flaws — distracting subplots, protracted storytelling, forced coincidences and a curious lack of chemistry between the two leads — but it certainly deserves more than the disappointingly low box-office returns it garnered upon its release in China on Aug. 27.

The film might be better received in the filmmakers' home city, where their award-winning 2012 nostalgia-fest Echoes of a Rainbow remains a touchstone for locally-\ flavored Hong Kong cinema. Meanwhile, the art house appeal of stars Lau Ching-wan (Mad Detective, Life Without Principle) and Tang Wei (Lust, Caution; The Golden Era) should secure the film a sustained presence in the festival circuit, starting with its international premiere in Toronto next month.

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Behind A Tale of Three Cities lies the incredible real-life story of Jackie Chan's parents. In Cheung's 2003 documentary Traces of a Dragon, Charles Chan — who was born Fang Daolong — talks candidly about his early life as a small-time gangster and then an anti-communist goon during the Chinese Civil War, an unsavory past which eventually forced him to change his name and flee to Hong Kong after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Meanwhile, he said his wife, Lily — known in her youth as Chen Yuerong — was once a chain-smoking, hard-drinking gambler notorious for walking into casinos with a horse whip in her hand.

Perhaps concerned with the reaction of mainland Chinese censors — with whom Cheung had a torturous run-in over the production of her 1997 historical epic The Soong Sisters — and possibly Jackie Chan's reverence toward his late parents, A Tale of Three Cities actually underplays the extraordinary real lives at its core. The fictionalized versions of the pair are less the hard-core outlaws from Chan Sr.'s recollections, but more like ill-fated lovebirds emerging out of a David Lean epic.

Brought to the screen by a cast-against-type (and voice-dubbed) Lau — who has built his career playing tormented men — Daolong is at worst a vain, apolitical brute desperate for money to look after his family, while Yuerong (Tang) is merely a strong-willed and plain-living widow struggling to break out of cycles of rural poverty and misogyny. It's telling how the pair's courtship kicks off as they play music, embrace and kiss amid the threat of an air raid in their village. Here, history is simply grafted on as background noise, or just an unending stream of plot points tearing at the pair's budding relationship as they travel from their provincial village in Anhui to Shanghai and beyond.

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Having written a lot of the real-life Chans' shadowy activities out of the picture, Cheung and Law have instead imposed some of these transgressions onto the couples' fictional buddies. "Big Sister" Qiu (Qin Hailu, Red Amnesia) is the childhood friend who lands Yuerong jobs at gambling dens, while Daolong bonds with Hua (Jing Boran, Monster Hunt), a young man whose nerdy, bespectacled veneer conceals a secret double life. Though they do serve a purpose, these two characters' presence and subsequent blooming romance divert audiences from the main attraction of the supposedly all-encompassing epic romance of the two leads.

Therein lies the main problem of A Tale of Three Cities. Throughout their three-decade career, Cheung and Law have proved themselves at their best when revealing universal themes — mostly revolving around geographical or psychological dislocation — with small-scale, intimate relationship dramas. As in The Soong Sisters, the pair flounder here as they try to string together a multistrand storyline weaved through long stretches of space and time. Here, they offer overwrought drama without the subtlety and authentic human empathy that drives their masterful 1980s classics Illegal Immigrant, An Autumn's Tale or Eight Taels of Gold. More affected than affecting, A Tale of Three Cities offers neither the best nor the worst of times; instead, it's a surprisingly middling if mildly entertaining affair conjured out of one extraordinary real story.

Production companies: Film Workshop, Magic Dream Production in a Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers International, Edko Films, Han Hai Information Technology, Omnijoi Media, Heyi Pictures presentation
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Tang Wei, Qin Hailu, Jing Boran
Director: Mabel Cheung
Screenwriter: Mabel Cheung, Alex Law
Producers: Alex Law, Nansun Shi, Zhang Dajun, James Tsim, Shan Tam
Executive producers: Wang Zhonglei, Wang Zhongjun, Bill Kong, Zhang Tao, Hong Tao, Zhui Huilong
Director of photography: Wang Yu
Production designer: Tim Yip
Costume designer: William Fung
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung, Wong Hoi
Music: Henry Lai
International Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, IM Global

In Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese and English

No ratings, 138 minutes

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