In this romantic drama from director Snow Zou, long-lost childhood sweethearts Yongyuan (Tse) and Anran (Gao) find themselves reunited in the Big Apple – she studying biomedical engineering in Columbia with a restaurant dishwasher job on the side, and he branching out his self-made textile manufacturing business to the States. The film tracks their childhoods in rural Beijing in the ’70s and early ’80s, to when they journey separately to America in the ’90s. Of course, it’s far from smooth sailing for the couple – having parted on less-than-amicable terms, Yongyuan arrives in New York to find his long-time paramour in a relationship with struggling artist and restaurant co-worker Michael (Qin). With the support of his friends and business partners (Du and Li) who have accompanied him to New York, Yongyuan sets about winning Anran’s heart once again.
The subject of childhood sweethearts rekindling their romances has always been a popular one; the upcoming Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Best Of Me revolves around this too. Writer-director Zuo adds to this formula the element of lovers reuniting in a foreign land, but this is hardly the first film to do that either. But Always is pretty to look at, cinematographer Li Bingqiang favouring lots sunlight streaming in through the windows in soft focus. Its opening scenes, which feature moments like young Anran buying young Yongyuan a stick of haw fruit candy, are cute but also most certainly cloying. It’s all very earnest and innocently cheesy.
However, as But Always progresses, it wades into ever-deepening pools of melodrama – cue the maudlin pop ballad montages. Things go from being merely hokey to emotionally manipulative and actually kind of tasteless by the time the twist ending rolls around. It’s not even that shocking, given that the movie telegraphs this with its in medias res prologue. Very few films can open with a scene from its conclusion without giving the whole game away – Inception is the only one that immediately comes to mind. We’re probably going into mild spoiler territory so skip past this paragraph if you wish, but we’ll pose this question – remember the ending of Remember Me and how it was called “borderline offensive”? Yeah, you can bet But Always is going to ruffle at least a few feathers, particularly since it will also be released Stateside.
But Always marks heartthrob Nicholas Tse’s return as a romantic leading man after spending the last several years of his film career in period pieces like Bodyguards And Assassins and The Bullet Vanishes and action flicks like Invisible Target and The Viral Factor. He is suitably dreamy here, whether he’s serving breakfast in bed like all fantasy boyfriends do or when he’s chivalrously sheltering his gal in the rain. We also get to glimpse those rippling abs and there is a rather amusing moment during a love scene when the camera seems like it’s about to get lost in his scapulae. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to muster up the necessary chemistry with Gao. She puts in a bland performance, all those distant forlorn glances not quite enough to sell the yearning and passion that is central to the story.
But Always tries to use its New York setting to distinguish itself from the other romantic dramas that come out of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Well, New York is just about the most-filmed city in the world. We get our main characters strolling through Central Park – which isn’t all that exciting, really. For the most part, anachronisms are avoided, but a few inevitably pop up. Speaking of the ’90s setting, the flavour of that decade never really permeates the film, TV news coverage of the Hong Kong handover ceremony and of Princess Diana’s death being the most specific references we get – until that cringe-worthy ending. That’s when But Always crosses the line from being mawkish to being shameless.
Summary: It’s pretty to look at and Nicholas Tse turns up the charm, but this is a movie that gets cheesier and cheesier until it smacks the audience upside the head with its overwrought ending.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars