Here lies a love story. Quiet, tender, heartbreaking. It’s an unassuming film in a cinematic landscape used to screaming out its merits. Director Johnnie To and writers Wai Ka-Fai and Yau Nai-Hoi are no strangers to the showy style that dominates a certain class of Hong Kong movies, but here, they opt for a gentler approach that privileges emotion over polish. What results is one of the most moving films I’ve seen from this territory in awhile.
Set in the washed out hills of Yunnan, Romancing In Thin Air folds around itself several times over. It is a story of a woman beset by loss. Seven years after her husband Tian (Li Guangjie) dashed into the woods to search for a missing boy, Sue (Cheng) awaits his return, except everyone knows he will not come back. Only she holds on to that hope and preserves whatever traces of his life that she can. Tian’s broken piano must stay that way and his truck repaired to a state of half-disrepair.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong film star Michael Lau (Louis Koo) is suffering his own loss but of a different kind. His film star fiancée (Gao Yuanyuan) left him at the altar for her old boyfriend (Wang Baoqiang), a coal miner from her home village. Michael goes on a drunken bender through the Mainland and finally stumbles into Tian’s guest lodge where Sue works. The isolated retreat turns out to be what just what he needs, but Sue is the one most altered by the new circumstances.
Romancing In Thin Air would be a decent love story if it ended there, but the movie offers more. It is equally about the transformative power of art and cinema in particular. On her own, Sue is reluctant to confront the reality that her husband is likely dead. When she sees one of Michael’s films, however, the grief it reflects allows her to imagine a life without her husband.
That isn’t the only instance of a film within a film though. The movie’s Chinese title (高海拔之戀II) indicates not a sequel to an actual picture but to one that Michael makes about Sue and Tian and his time in Yunnan. In the end, it is the experience of seeing her life onscreen that helps Sue move on. The movie postulates that film is not a medium that draws down or puts constraints on reality; rather, it is where it begins.
Those blurred borders are further examined through Sue and Michael’s relationship. It turns out that she is a massive fan of his, so much so that Tian won her over by imitating him. When Michael does enter her life, fiction and reality collapse on each other. Sue wants to recreate an iconic scene from his movies and asks him to chase after the sunset with her on a motorcycle. He says that it’s something that only happens in the movies, but they do it anyway, just as she and Tian did years earlier. In another movie, Sue would be a neurotic fangirl desperate to live out a fantasy. But here, the act of imitating art generates love and healing.
It’s easy for the film to lose itself in meta-layers, so what keeps it grounded are the performances. There is a lively cast of supporting characters, with Tien Niu standing out as the resident doctor. Koo is also in fine form, though he doesn’t have to stretch himself to play a Hong Kong superstar. He’s best when he cedes the screen to Cheng for she is the emotional core of this film. The actress best known for her comedic work is sterling in this dramatic role and singularly carries the film. Beneath Sue’s cool appearance is someone raging against the stillness of a life interrupted. Her performance captures all the sadness, joy, and redemption of this beautiful film.
“Do Re Mi” – theme song by Sammi Cheng:
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰; Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Gordon Cheung 張國立
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Yau Nai-Hoi 游乃海; Ray Chan 陳偉斌; Jevons Au 歐文傑
Cast: Sammi Cheng 鄭秀文; Louis Koo 古天樂; Gao Yuanyuan 高圓圓; Wang Baoqiang 王寶強; Crystal Huang 黃奕; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Li Guangjie 李光潔; Tien Niu 恬妞; Sun Jiayi 孫嘉一; Yeung Yik 楊奕; Fu Chuen-Kit 傅傳傑
Time: 114 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong