Don't Go Breaking My Heart: Film Review

A calculated female wish-fulfillment romance with a touch of "Rear Window" irony.

Hong Kong's Johnnie To aims for a mainstream audience in his first romantic drama since 2008.

HONG KONG -- A love story that plays out extensively via window panes and cell phone videos, Johnnie To's first romantic drama since Linger (2008) may conceal a dark and neurotic subtext about the existential distances between urban men and women behind its gleaming, crowd-pleasing surfaces. For the most part though, Don't Go Breaking My Heart's Cinderella tale about an ordinary girl caught between two adamant admirers is VIP-class escapism. Like a magician (a motif signifying the film's ongoing male rivalry), To dazzles with non-stop filmmaking tricks, so many will be happy to forget the disingenuousness of the creative premise, especially the kind of romance it manufactures.
Except for collectivists, few overseas disciples of To's cool action films would go the extra mile to see this very different product, aimed squarely at mainland audiences with a bit of Asian-region circulation as bonus. There'll be more activity in Asian-centric ancillary.

Female protagonist Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) is a mainland Chinese working as a financial analyst in Hong Kong. One day, an unpleasant encounter with her ex-boyfriend (Terence Yin) sends her into such a fluster that she nearly gets run over in the chaotic traffic. A drunken tramp Fang Qihong (Daniel Wu) comes to her aid in the nick of time. Back at work, she is being surveyed longingly by finance wunderkind Cheung Shen Ran (Louis Koo) from his window in a neighboring office block.

To gives a shining example of how gimmicks turn into art if you know how and when to use them, and there are enough in the screenplay (by To's longtime collaborator Wai Ka Fai, among others) to spawn several chick flicks. The matchup between Fang and Cheung to win over Zixin takes its cue from the gamesmanship (between a criminal-mastermind and a dogged detective) in To's Running Out of Time series. Interestingly, as if incapable of direct communication, they mime their love across office windows (post-its never looked so flirtatious.) This builds to an operatic finale when they compete in high-tech and high wattage pyrotechnics of courtship across two skyscrapers, one still under construction.

Given that To's action films are hit-or-miss with China's censorship, a romance with the lighthearted air of his earlier Needing You has a better shot. As a result, this film's outlook has bought into the unapologetically materialistic values of Go, Lala, Go! (a mainland style-bible modeled on Sex and the City) syndrome.

Like a modern Alice, Zixin finds herself in a wonderland of eligible bachelors who are impossibly rich, handsome, talented and athletic. Despite being a Peeping Tom and serial womanizer, much comic ado is devised around the cunning way Cheung buys Zixin a Maserati, a luxury house and even the company she works for. Fang also turns out to be no ordinary tramp, but a Canadian-born, award winning architect and butch hockey player.

The improbable setups draw attention to their own artifice and consciously belie the true love which the protagonists keep professing. For example, Zixin has never been physically together with either suitor for more than a day or two. Her indecision echoes a similar romantic dilemma in screenwriter Wai's The Shopaholics. As well, it mirrors a more profound confusion (symbolized by nuanced contrasts of day and night) of values in a fast-changing urban jungle. The film's underlying cynicism is implied in an oft-repeated wisecrack "Nine out of ten men sleep around; the tenth one is considering it." Fang, who happens to be the 11th man, is called a "Martian."

Shot mostly in Hong Kong with the final leg taking place in Suzhou, more Mandarin is spoken than Cantonese (another concession to mainland market). The sights of Hong Kong captured are less atmospheric (soulless yuppie restaurants and placidly voguish home interiors are usual locations) than To's gangster flicks, which render Hong Kong's or Macau's seamier quarters stylishly shady and nocturnal. To gives the production what it needs in terms of technical competence, especially cinematography and dramatic movement, which are as fluid as in his action films. Performances of all three leads are enthusiastic but over-earnest.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival (opening film)
Sales: Media Asia Distribution.
Media Asia Films, China Film Media Asia present a Milkyway Image Production
Cast: Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Gao Yuanyuan, Lam Suet, Selena Li, JJ Jia, Terence Yin
Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Wai Ka Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan, Jevons Au
Producer: Wai Ka Fai
Executive producer: John Chong
Director of photography: Cheng Siu Keung
Production designer: Bruce Yu
Costume: Stephanie Wong
Supervising editor: David Richardson
Music: Xavier Jamaux
No rating, 114 minutes