I suppose I should have known what I was getting into with [b]Everlasting Regret[/b], what with the recent spate of deliberately arty films (see Kar-Wai, Wong and the last three films he's made, if not his entire oeuvre) that thrill in creating a throbbing, romantic atmosphere with deliberately minimalist dialogue, the emptiness instead filled with long, profound silences. Eventually someone would have to get it wrong, and I'm afraid that, in this particular instance, director Stanley Kwan comes up quite a bit shorter than his contemporary.
[size=1](Note of advice: spoilers abound in the synopsis that follows, as there's very little point summarising the movie otherwise, but I'd advise you to skip the whole next paragraph, as you'll possibly find yourself even more bored with the interminable silences without the prospect of at least finding out what happens next in the movie. I've kept the ending a secret, of course, but I've also summarised the first two-thirds of the story fairly accurately.)[/size]
We follow the changing fortunes and loves of Wang Qiyao (Sammi Cheng), a young girl growing up in Shanghai in the turbulent 1950s. Through a friend, she's introduced to studio photographer Cheng (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who from this moment of meeting, lights a torch for her that he carries for her to the end of their lives. However, in urging her to join the Miss Shanghai pageant, Cheng unwittingly introduces her to her first love Li, an army officer who quickly takes a shine to the young ingenue, and shacks up with her in short order. However, the young lovers are torn apart when Li has to go into hiding for his life, and Qiyao's life crumbles. With the care of her friends, she eventually picks herself up and begins an intimate relationship with Ming (Daniel Wu), who loves her so deeply and desperately that it makes their eventual separation when he has to go work in Hong Kong all the more painful and difficult. Left with a young daughter and no man to officially take care of her, Qiyao weds a stranger who's dying of a terminal illness, so that she can avoid the ignominy of being labelled a loose woman, and he can die with the family name still intact. Through all this, Qiyao's sham of a marriage falls apart, but his reticence about his feelings for Qiyao remains, right until he provides lodging for Kela (Huang Jue), a friend of his from the rural parts of China and Qiyao's final, most dangerous paramour.
Now, I will readily admit that my own lack of knowledge of Chinese history of the period probably meant that I enjoyed the film a lot less than I would have done otherwise. Tantalising hints of a rich and complex history are scattered throughout the film: Li fleeing for his life as the Communists take over China, or Qiyao's daughter gaily singing a song idolising Chairman Mao. But I do feel that, even with an all-encompassing grasp of China's tumultous past at that time, the film's narrative is so poorly-handled that it's difficult to form much of an emotional attachment to either the characters or their relationships. Kwan opts for a distinctly episodic approach: we're basically handled three bundles of vignettes, all loosely clustered around each of Qiyao's significant others, but time in between each bundle becomes remarkably elastic. With no helpful timestamps and the frustrating tendency to cram--in a not very artful manner!--a decade of history into two words of dialogue or a suddenly newly-grown-up daughter, [b]Regret[/b] becomes tediously oblique. This is exacerbated by the hopelessly youthful Qiyao: for some reason, the make-up department does a remarkably good job aging Leung, but leaves Sammi Cheng mostly uncreased and with the same glowing skin of a twenty-year-old in what must at least be her fifties. To Sammi Cheng's credit, she does put on 8 kg for the role to play Qiyao in her later years, but honestly, 8 kg on a 45-kg frame isn't much, so she still appears deceptively, disturbingly young even as Leung becomes increasingly decrepit. In the end, it becomes difficult to form an emotional attachment to most of the characters in this troubled story, as the film drifts from scene to scene without a firm grounding in either art or emotion.
It's probably unfair to criticise Sammi Cheng too much for this (although her faintly accented Mandarin made it difficult for me to buy her as a China-woman); in fact, her performance was surprising in the amount of raw emotional depth she revealed in one especially startling scene. (You'll know which one it is when you see it: it's the only other scene in the movie that pulses with anything approaching a dramatic pace. Reportedly, the actress spent a good long time huddled in a corner and crying helplessly after filming the scene, to ride out the emotional rip tide.) Unfortunately for her, Sammi Cheng isn't given very much to do, aside from stare blankly into the middle distance to give the impression of a mind and heart laden with woe and longing. This is compounded by the fact that Qiyao is such a curiously unfriendly character--it's difficult to muster up much empathy for a woman whose motives remain so clouded, and yet leaves each tattered relationship more damaged and desperate than when she entered it. The focal point of the film, and in fact the story, turns out to be the faithful Cheng, on whose relentlessly undampened, resolutely unreciprocated love the entire film hangs. It's to Leung's credit that he presents here the one character filled with such hopeless, deep and profound longing that it really does feel as if he's wandered in from the set of Wong's latest film. The film is not without some nice touches which help Leung in this--what started out as a strangely jarring moment when Qiyao and her chum Lili break into song at the dinner table, becomes remarkably more poignant when the drunken Cheng joins them, only to signal to his wife and Ming the deep reserve of love and longing he has long harboured for Qiyao. I did also enjoy Wu's all-too-brief appearance as Ming: he managed to paint his character with such warmth that the rather spineless Ming becomes sympathetic rather than repulsive, with his love for Qiyao evident in the scene where he breaks into heaving sobs during a doomed attempt to bring Qiyao to the abortion clinic.
Closest in feel and aspiration to a Wong film, [b]Regret [/b]unfortunately fails to create either the same arty detachment or emotional depth usually achieved in tandem in Wong's best. Reasonably competent cast aside, we instead get a patchwork ensemble of scenes, some better than others, but mostly, frustratingly, quietly... empty.