Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 25, 2021 5:44 pm 
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ANN HUI: LOVE AFTER LOVE 第一爐香 (2020) - now online, dreamy, fun period piece



Not the marrying kind

This is a dreamy, visually luscious period drama about money and morality drawn from an Eileen Chang story, Hui's third. Wikipedia calls it an "erotic romance drama," whatever that means; it's erotic in the mid-section, alright; the last scenes have a bittersweet Douglas Sirk mood. It becomes a musing melodrama that makes being married to an irresponsible seducer as a husband seem not so bad at all. This is likely to seem a guilty pleasure, but a very posh one given that it sports stars like Sandra Ma as Ge Weilong, who begins to look more and more like an Asian Léa Seydoux; Faye Yu as Madame Liang; and Eddie Peng, the linchpin and maybe the real star of the piece, who plays the young sensuous playboy George Chiao. The poshness also includes the cinematography by the dp central to Wong Kar-wai's iconic films, Christopher Doyle, and the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Weilong is Madame Liang's neice, and shows up at her posh door when her family has returned to Shanghai, asking to be supported to finish her education in Hong Kong. She is demure, poor, and even a little dumpy, but that will change.

It's implied LIang is some kind of high-class courtesan, part of the household of her older friend 'Uncle' Situ (Fan Wei), and Weilong is to become a part of this household in some fashion. . We don't see much of her transacctional activities. The focus isn't on Weilong's studies, either; we never see her crack a book. What we see is the two pert housemaids Didi (Karlina Zhang) and Ni’er (Ning Chang) who meet Weilong when she arrives. George (pronounced "Joe-sheh," which makes all the difference) has doubtless enjoyed their favors.

But now he turns his attentions to Weilong, who is bashful, retiring, and utterly smitten. George likes Weilong so much he makes it a rule never to lie to her - a theme of the piece. He tells her that he will never marry, that he will not love her, but that he can make her happy. Weilong is saddened, horrified, and flustered - and still more smitten.

This is set in a pretty strictly Asian Hong Kong (that is we almost never see white people) of the forties, or late thirties, though some of the beautiful antique cars are even earlier, and the Asian women's styles are a bit hard for us to date. The period is a bit fluid, and Eddie Peng wears loose, floppy designer outfits that could be from right now, which never fail to show off his hunky torso. He moves around in them as if he's quite at ease and having a very good time being this sort of updated F. Scott Fitzgerald hedonist. Joe-sheh is narcissistic ("I like my face," he tells a mirror) but a fabulous charmer.

So they sleep together, and it's great, and Weilong is ruined. Except here's the surprise: Madame Liang and Weilong and George's distant dad (who hasn't much money or hasn't earmarked much for George) work something out that persuades George to marry Weilong. Through all this Sandra Ma, whose transformation is maybe a little too complete, starts acquiring her Léa Seydoux look, dressing sexier, smoking sometimes, and developing some spunk. They go through a dreary period when he sleeps around, she gets depressed, and that depresses him. But together, apparently, they now work something out. Neither has anywhere else to go, or maybe anywhere either of them would rather be, for long.

As has been pointed out, this is a world in which everything revolves around money, but people don't work particularly, as such. Whoever's footing the bills, this is the kind of comfort rich people used to refer to as "pre-war." Even the cat eats from an elegant china service.

A key scene is one where Weilong receives a request from her father to come to Shanghai to do some translating for some important transaction and she insists she must go. George behaves like a child (a big impossibly cute one) wanting to go, then when she refuses not wanting to let her go. The relationship is growing new layers.

One of the two main American trade reviewers called this beautiful but basically shallow; the other one began with how gorgeous it is and how finely appointed, then suggested the writing makes us read between the lines, creating those layers. This is a sleeper, one of those films that may only seem a guilty pleasure until you realize it's really an offbeat gem. I could watch Eddie Pang sensuously sashaying around and Sandra Ma changing into Léa Seydoux for days, and Christopher Doyle and the production designer Zhao Hai and costume designer Emi Wada, collaborating with Doye, provide images that will never grow old.

Love After Love第一爐香,144 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2020, and was featured also at Busan and Tokyo in Oct. 2020. Watched on a screener provided by Fortissimo. US online release Oct. 21, 2021.

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