Tragedy, coincidence and loneliness clash in Peter Chan’s romantic comedy-drama.
“I’m finally a Hong Konger.”
How much does your environment change you? And just how much does the influence of the people who live there, and with whom you interact with, alter the way you behave? In Comrades: A Love Story, mainlander Xiao-Jun (Leon Lai), goes to Hong Kong to find a job and hopefully bring his girlfriend Xiao-Ting (Kristy Yeung) one day. What he finds instead is Qiao Li (Maggie Cheung), part-time McDonald’s employee and full-time hustler for whom the Hong Kong dream is to find where the money is.
The two develop a strong friendship, which eventually grows sexual and romantic. With Qiao’s help, Jun learns English and Cantonese, and the two embark on a number of money-making schemes together. Things don’t stay peachy forever, with a crashing economy, Jun’s rocky long-distance relationship with Ting, and a persistent gangster named Pao (Eric Tsang) who seduces Qiao all set to complicated life.
Peter Chan’s movie delves into a few themes, but most notable is its exploration of how both of his main characters are influenced, transformed and possibly corrupted by the promises of prosperity and happiness Hong Kong offers. As we find out, Qiao is as much a mainlander as Jun, but she takes to the city a lot quicker than he does (in fact, so quickly that I don’t think the final quirky mini-twist makes much sense), so determined is she to leave behind the poverty she knew in China and finally make it as a “real Hong Konger”.
Despite this, in no way does Chan say that the city life way of doing things is better or worse, though. Life just moves differently in urban environments. Jun, arguably the most main character of the two, shows this change well, without coming off as too much of a jerk, even when he actively and repeatedly cheats on his girlfriend. Part of this is due to Leon Lai bringing his affability a-game here, and while his initial wide-eyed naivety can get a bit much sometimes, he makes it work, contrasting well with highly independent yet equally loveable Maggie Cheung who, as expected, absolutely nails her role.
The two have such great chemistry and it makes their friendship and (likely) doomed affair incredibly gripping. But unlike the later Maggie Cheung forbidden romance drama In the Mood for Love, Comrades is loaded with moments of comedy, often highlighting the absurdities of modern city life. Cinematography legend Christopher Doyle bafflingly appears as an English teacher whose lessons seem to comprise entirely of watching classic movies and repeating back lines.
These moments of light-heartedness, combined with a timeless tale of unlikely love make Comrades a massively endearing film, loaded with moments of genuine emotion, heartbreak and love.There may have been some dry eyes in the cinema, but if there it was very few. Comrades combines a hugely talented cast, sophisticated storytelling and a timeless narrative to create a Hong Kong romantic classic
Verdict: Comrades: A Love Story tells us that love in the big city, like everything else, comes at a high price.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Pao: Surprisingly chill for a gangster, huh
New York in the 90s: Can’t even smoke in peace
Eric Tsang: Practising for his role in Infernal Affairs, I see
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Did-I-Cry-a-Tron: Maybe a bit. OK, maybe a lot.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)
Also known as: 甜蜜蜜
Cantonese, Mandarin, English
Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Ivy Ho
Maggie Cheung – Qiao Li
Leon Lai – Xiao-Jun Li
Eric Tsang – Pao Au-Yeung
Kristy Yeung – Xiao-Ting Li
Christopher Doyle – Jeremy
Joe Cheung – Yan
Irene Tsu – Aunt Rosie
Yu Ting – George
Michelle Gabriel – Cabbage