|Director Patrick Kong makes his first sequel to one of his films with Anniversary – though really, if you look at his entire filmography it’s easy to see it as one massive series. However, Anniversary is a literal sequel – a 10-years-after follow-up to Kong’s original “love sucks” picture, Marriage with a Fool (2005), which featured Alex Fong and Stephy Tang as newlyweds experiencing a rough start. Fong and Tang return, not only as the same characters but as a real-life couple in a real-life long-term relationship (Woo! Gossip!), so there’s a nifty meta thing going on. Fong and Tang haven’t starred opposite each other since L for Love, L for Lies (2008), which means nostalgia is in effect too. However, whatever promise Anniversary has is outweighed by tired storylines, didactic screenwriting and turgid direction. Whether this bad filmmaking can be offset by the Stephy-Alex factor is more or less on the individual – and there will be fans who’ll love Anniversary no matter what. Hardcore Stephy-Alex shippers: You have this movie.
Anniversary actually starts off OK, and reestablishes the characters of Chan Wah-Keung (Fong) and his wife Bo (Tang) without resorting to a manufactured plot gimmick (unlike the similar many-years-later sequel My Sassy Husband). We learn that the couple is generally fine but with small cracks showing in their marriage. Bo is too direct in her behavior and Keung is a bit too tolerant of her, while Keung’s mother (Rebecca Chan) wishes for a grandchild and passive-aggressively blames Bo. Meanwhile, Bo is unhappy that her sister Bella (Lesley Chiang) is pregnant and that the guy who did it is a slacker named Kit (Bob Lam), plus there’s the fact that Bo’s mother, Ms. Lily (Loletta Lee), was only the mistress to Bo’s father Bobby (David Siu), and he hasn’t been seen in decades – that is, until he shows up again one day. It seems Bo’s problems mostly lie outside the marriage while Keung’s main problem is Bo. Perhaps that’s his fault, since he did cheat on her back in Marriage with a Fool, plus there was a flirtation with Kiki (Jacky Cai), a former intern who suddenly resurfaces.
Keung’s status as a former (And maybe relapsed?) philanderer is a major sticking point in Keung and Bo’s marriage, which leads to the question: When you cheat on someone, are you ever really forgiven? That question defines a key tension in Bo and Keung’s relationship, as does the question of if people really can change. These are decent themes for Anniversary, though one might wish that Kong could find a newer, more mature story idea than the same cheating drama he’s used before. Keung is still a bit attracted to Kiki, plus there’s youthful Yan (Joy Shing of Enthralled), who’s temping at Keung’s real estate agency in place of her aunt (Siu Yam-Yam). Yan is one of those manic pixie girls who’ll pull Keung everywhere like she’s the Sassy Girl and he’s her beta – a dynamic that’s supposed to be entertaining but is mostly insufferable. As a subplot, this feels like C-grade screenwriting, and Shing’s too-perky performance quickly becomes grating.
Bo has her own minor flirtation with Cheung (Jun Kung), a client at her wedding planner job. However, few of these distractions seem a real threat to the couple – rather, it’s the simple fact that threats might exist that makes everything turbulent. When a planned vacation is cancelled by Bo, Keung spends too much time helping Yan with a magic contest, and there’s bad communication, everything comes to a head. This leads to the obvious impasse: To divorce or not to divorce? A freeze settles into the Bo-Keung marriage, which means for this couple to get by their problems they’ll need the help of every other person in the film who happens to cross their paths. Yep, it’s the friends and family who – through lectures and maybe some sacrifices – end up saving the day, though not without a plot turn that’s so clichéd that even talking about it is clichéd. Seriously, you know that plot twist they use in every melodrama to get people who are arguing to stop arguing and reassess? Yep, they use it here.
Hackneyed plotting aside, Anniversary has themes that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship should identify with. However, there’s far too much telling rather than showing, especially when it’s time to bring the couple to an understanding. After tensions reach their peak, Bo and Keung must play witness to sappy events and speeches, including a couple of long lectures from their friends Min (Leila Tong) and Chan (Louis Cheung). Actually, both of their moments are decently affecting, but come as long speeches that tax patience. Bo and Keung also get long advice sessions from their dads (Sek Sau plays Keung’s father) and at some point, all this talk becomes narration rather than conversation. This also goes for the dialogue between Bo and Keung, which gets pedantic in how uninterrupted and self-aware it is. These long-winded speeches are recurring Patrick Kong devices that, along with the terribly obvious music cues, are habits that he should be taking a hard look at.
Thankfully, Kong does improve in some areas. Production design is solid, and Kong dispenses with his usual flashbacks – a strange choice, actually, since this is a film that could use flashes back to the previous film. Characters discuss events that occurred in Marriage with a Fool, and those who remember should see plot references and shared scene motifs – which count as nostalgia to fans of Kong’s prolific filmography. Also, the Stephy-Alex thing does have its charms. The fact that both have lasted a decade in the industry (with some detours to China) is something worth recognizing. Tang now has a more mature presence instead of her previous girlishness, while Fong is innately convincing as this sort of arrested-development-suffering dude, yet he still offers decent depth. However, both are outshone by Leila Tong, who excels even in her too-long teary speeches, and Louis Cheung, who should receive some sort of award for his stellar support in ten zillion Hong Kong features in 2015.
Anniversary rarely generates tension as it’s clear that Bo and Keung do love one another despite their grousing. Is this a meta-remnant of the real-life Stephy-Alex pairing? It’s not my place to say but the two show a strong enough chemistry that even Keung’s supposed cheating tendencies never seem that convincing. So whatever fictional drama exists, it’s undone by the simple fact that the lead actors are really very happy together in real life. That’s entertainment…isn’t it? There’s threequel potential too; true to Patrick Kong form, a final twist is served up that undermines that film’s climax. Oh no, more drama! Whatever – Patrick Kong is a predictable filmmaker but his repeated obsessions, techniques and motifs make his movies into a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” game that defies conventional film criticism. We get it, Mr. Kong – love sucks, and we’ll doubtless hear that again from you one day. But hey: Stephy and Alex – there’s your touchstone for Anniversary, people. Without affection for Stelex (Alphy?), shrug and move on.