Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai finally return to that hallowed cinema ground: the romantic comedy! Once again the Milkyway masters apply their celebrated filmmaking skills to a gripping tale of men and women as they flirt, fight and figure out which are the best restaurants within driving distance. It's your film geek dream come true. Or maybe not. Anyway, those grousing about the lack of Exiled XII should chill out, because if there’s one thing that Milkyway’s romcoms do that their crime films don’t, it’s make money. To and Wai’s irony-fueled macho actioners do boffo at genre film fests and Internet fan sites, but at the box office they’re only so-so propositions. Good-looking guys and girls, some creative flirting and the expected happy endings? Cha-ching! The reality: moviemaking is a business, too.
There’s a bonus to this cynical reality: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s romantic comedies are frequently good films. Sure, they adhere to genre conventions, but To and Wai are an uncommon pair who know how to make commercial films smarter than they should be. To is the film stylist, crafting visual set pieces out of material that would be exposition-heavy in another filmmaker’s hands. Wai is the story genius, adding layers to his characters and situations that make them deeper and more intriguing than one expects. The pair’s earlier comedies do have crass conceits, but were frequently fun and surprising in how they told their stories and developed their characters. Simply put: To and Wai raise the level of the romantic comedy, and their collaborations — in any genre — are worth anticipating.
That said, how does Don’t Go Breaking My Heart rate among the pantheon of Milkyway romances? Not the best, perhaps, but still very much worth the audience's time. For Don't Go Breaking My Heart, To and Wai have selected a new romantic comedy queen. Mainland actress Gao Yuanyuan (Rob-B-Hood, City of Life and Death) plays Cheng Zixin, an expat financier in Hong Kong who suffers through the 2008 financial crisis while also nursing her own romantic issues. Right before the bubble bursts, she gains the attentions of two gorgeous bohunks. Bachelor number one is Cheung Shen-Ran (Louis Koo), a financial whiz who owns the office in the tower across from Zixin's, where he can watch her tending to her daily work. He starts to flirt with her via Post-It note artwork and magic tricks, and she flirts back with dazzling smiles and enthusiastic energy.
Unfortunately, their first date goes awry when Shen-Ran is sidetracked at the last minute by a foreign woman (Larisa) with greater, uh, assets. Not that Zixin is perfect either — when agreeing to date Shen-Ran she forgot about her meeting with Fang Qihong (Daniel Wu), who once saved her from a traffic accident. Qihong has the grooming habits of a beggar, but he’s really a talented architect who's lost his mojo. He helps Zixin deal with leftover issues from her douchebag ex (Terence Yin), while she inspires him to return to the drafting board. Years pass, and the three move in and out of each other’s lives, with love acting like gravity. The three are inevitably pulled together and after 100-plus minutes of hemming and hawing, Zixin must make a choice. Who will it be: the tan player Shen-Ran or the perfect gentleman Qihong?
On a practical level, there is only one choice: Zixin should choose Qihong, because he’s flawless and the most awesome guy in the known universe. Qihong is a romcom ringer, but luckily he’s played by Daniel Wu, who’s no stranger to romantic integrity (see the Love Undercover movies for a glimpse at Wu’s convincing charms). By comparison, Shen-Ran is extraordinarily flawed, but he’s also a charismatic and surprisingly seductive choice for Zixin. Louis Koo is at his rascally best here, and the film makes him a dangerously viable alternative to Daniel Wu's proverbial perfect guy. If a romantic comedy’s number one issue is “Will they or won’t they?” then Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a resounding success. Sure, reason states that Zixin should choose Qihong, but sympathy often sways towards the should-be despicable Shen-Ran. Louis Koo (and To and Wai’s handling of his character) is simply that good.
Gao Yuanyuan suffers compared to the male leads as she has to somehow convince that her unrealistic “every woman’s fantasy” situation is something that all audiences can relate to. It’s hard to say that she succeeds, but Gao is a very attractive and even winning lead — she's an elegant romcom heroine with the goods and the grace to charm, if not completely convince. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart bears some comparison to To and Wai’s seminal Needing You in that it deals with office politics, a boss-subordinate romantic relationship and a possibly unsympathetic male lead. The similarities are mostly superficial, however. Don't Go reveals little about Hong Kong or China in its characters, and goes for elaborate sitcom situations over local or cultural familiarity. Needing You was a unique urban romcom, but Don't Go Breaking My Heart is an idealized romcom fantasy. There's a big difference there.
The fantasy romcom format is appropriate anyway, as Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai have acknowledged that Don't Go Breaking My Heart is aiming for China. Mainland audiences generally favor luxury brands and locations over realistic (read: less-than-glamorous) settings in their romcoms; China likes to see money, and To and Wai deliver with their depiction of Hong Kong as an upscale urban playground. Brand names, expensive food and posh restaurants are given great focus — even local coffee joints Café Habitu and Pacific Coffee look far more attractive here than they are in actuality. It's hardly a fair look at Hong Kong, but the situations are far from real anyway. Don't Go Breaking My Heart may not have the surprising cultural depths of Needing You but it has good looks and glossiness to compensate. If you prefer prettiness over personality, then Don't Go is the clear winner for To-Wai romances.
This is a Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai romantic comedy, so it's also got cineaste-pleasing style. Situations are less verbalized than they are in other romcoms, with the film developing through action and visuals. Composition, spacing and distance play a huge part in Don't Go Breaking My Heart; the characters' wordless flirtation between office towers (something that all three leads participate in eventually) is enormously entertaining, and may be worth the price of admission on its own. Audience involvement extends to the emotions; To and Wai construct their romances cinematically, requiring audiences to "read" characters to see what they're feeling or how they're changing. This is nothing new, as it's been employed in every To and Wai romcom over the past decade. Sadly, the film does resort to some expository speeches to tie up all its plot points. This could be another concession brought on by the need to appeal to a larger mainstream audience.
Audience satisfaction may also be tempered by the film's climax, which is abrupt and features a good-natured forfeit by one of Zixin's suitors. This is hardly a realistic outcome — you'd think that after this crushing romantic loss (both guys literally chase Zixin for years), the loser would react with more than a shrug and a wave. However, this denouement encapsulates Don't Go Breaking My Heart quite accurately. The film's dilemma isn't about figuring out who you need, but about who's better at playing the game of love, i.e., who's got a better marriage proposal or a bigger engagement ring up their sleeve. Similarly, Don't Go Breaking My Heart is about dressing up a "been there, done that" Hong Kong genre with the latest mainland-pleasing accoutrements — with the prize for the filmmakers being hopeful big box office. For the audience it comes down to the oft-told adage: in love (and even filmmaking), it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Don't Go Breaking My Heart has the style, wit and stars to make this Milkyway romcom return an enjoyable one. Messrs. To and Wai: you play this game quite well. (Kozo, 2011)