Friday, January 20, 2006

If Music be the Food of Love: Perhaps Love

Bittersweet love stories are what Peter Ho-Sun Chan does best, as perfectly exhibited by the nine Hong Kong Film Awards win in 1996 for Comrades, Almost a Love Story (sometimes also credited as Tian Mi Mi) starring Leon Lai (Seven Swords, Heroic Duo) and Maggie Cheung (In The Mood for Love, Clean). He returns as a director in Perhaps Love, the first musical to be produced in China in more than 30 years, currently Hong Kong’s contender for this year’s Oscar Foreign Film entry, after a 2-year absence in the director’s chair in exchange for the role of producer for a number of films, namely that of the horror genre. For this latest offering, Chan employed the talents of upcoming Chinese actress, Zhou Xun, Asian heartthrobs Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ji Jin Hee as well as Hong Kong cantopop superstar, Jacky Cheung.

Perhaps Love explores the darker connotations attached to the complicated notions of love: selfishness, hate, obsession, bitterness and desperation that are intermingled with emotions of love and affection. Nie Wen (Jacky Cheung), a somewhat fledging director is trying to make a comeback film to prove that he is the celebrated auteur deserving of previous praises. Casting his long-time partner, Sun Na (Zhao Xun) in the leading role, he is prepared to film a musical Romeo and Juliet set within the colourful world of the circus. The character of the girl, having lost her memory, has joined the circus and has fallen in love with the circus master. But she bumps into her old lover, who tries to win her affection from the circus master and remind her of their past. To play the role of the lover, Nie Wen cast popular Hong Kong actor, Lin Jian Dong (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

However, unbeknownst to him, Sun Na and Lin Jian Dong had a previous relationship while they were struggling students in Beijing a decade earlier. Discontent with the life they lead, Sun Na jilted Lin Jian Dong and left Beijing in search of fame and fortune. At the same time, when the role of the circus master fails to be cast by the actor Nie Wen wants, he casts himself into the role, unwittingly working out the relationship of his lover and the actor he hired through the film he was trying to make. It is through the making of the film, and the intermeshing of his real life and his film that he writes and rewrites the outcome of the story. Korean actor, Ji Jin-hee, who had to learn how to sing in Mandarin for the film, plays multiple roles throughout the film - as a narrator for the audience and as mysterious ‘guardian angels’ to both Sun Na and Nie Wen. Just as his various roles remind the characters of the emotions they repressed, his presence reminds the audience that we are watching a film within a film.

Unlike other musicals like Moulin Rouge, the characters in Perhaps Love do not suddenly break into song. That is, the music does not tell the story or move the plot along. Rather it is the characters that these characters play in the film they are trying to make who sing and dance. The music further emotes what the characters are feeling in making the film and in playing the characters each have been cast to play. Therefore, rather than alienate audiences who might not be used to musicals where characters just burst into song at any given moment, the songs draw the audience further into the jumbled emotions of pain, hate, obsession and desperation the characters inflict on one another.

Furthermore, the audience is also told the story of Lin Jian Dong and Sun Na’s love affair through flashbacks that are further intensified by the different techniques of cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Peter Pau. Doyle filmed the Beijing scenes in stark white, reflecting the coldness of winter and the barrenness of their lives, possibly a shadowing of Sun Na and Lin Jian Dong’s relationship while Pau dressed the Shanghai sets with warm greens and fiery reds. The circus atmosphere is heightened through the dancing, choreographed by Farah Khan, who was also the choreographer for the West End musical Bombay Dreams.

To solely dub Perhaps Love as merely a musical would be a gross understatement. While all the actors get to show their vocal prowess in further emoting their character’s conflicting desires, it is Jacky Cheung, who had spent nearly the last decade producing and acting in his own musical, who stole the show once he begins to sing. However, Peter Chan manages to make Perhaps Love more than just a musical – he manages to explore the bitter side of a bittersweet love affair long gone, without giving in to theatrical endings (as the premise of the musical Nie Wen is trying to make gives him ample space for theatrics). In fact, the film feels like a perfect accompaniment to Chan’s most famous work to date, Comrades, Almost a Love Story.

Bertha Chin in Singapore - Rating: ****

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