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Yesterday Once More

Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau re-team in Johnnie To's Yesterday Once More.

Chinese: 龍鳳鬥  
Year: 2004
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Writer: The Hermit, Au Kin-Yee
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Sammi Cheng Sau-Man, Jenny Hu, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Hui Siu-Hung, Chun Wong, Teddy Lin Chun
The Skinny: While Needing You and Love on a Diet sang, Yesterday Once More only seems to sigh. A pseudo caper flick that mixes fifties Hollywood glamour with Johnnie To's obtuse storytelling, this third and final (?) film in the Andy-Sammi-Johnny canon is a mixed bag. The premise itself is too clever for its own good, but the film still proves intriguing and possibly entertaining, and the actors bring practiced chemistry to the table. However, this movie could understandably piss off the most ardent fans of the trio's earlier work.
by Kozo:

It's money in the bank! Usually. The Johnnie To-Andy Lau-Sammi Cheng triumvirate behind Needing You and Love on a Diet return for a third and final (?) collaboration, Yesterday Once More, a sophisticated romance that departs from the trio's earlier work in more than a few ways. Instead of regular joes, the two stars play divorced ex-thieves whose professional rivalry is only matched by their lingering desire for one another. These new characters are also more sophisticated and sexy, and spend their time sparring archly instead of actually falling in love. If it doesn't sound like it already, then here it is: Yesterday Once More suffers when compared to either Needing You or Love on a Diet, a result that's not unexpected. Given the beloved status of their previous films, it's unrealistic to assume that a new To-Lau-Cheng team-up would equal automatic cinema gold. But the hope was there, wasn't it?

Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng play divorced couple Mr. and Mrs. To, two exceptionally rich and exceptionally attractive Hong Kong citizens who just so happen to be professional thieves. The two split up after a routine diamond heist, supposedly over an inability to divide the loot properly. Two years later, Mrs. To has a new suitor: Steve (Carl Ng), a richer-than-rich momma's boy who opens up momma's loaded vaults to snag Mrs. To's hand in marriage. Steve gets his mother (veteran Hong Kong star Jenny Hu AKA Jenny Woo) to hand over an immensely valuable ruby necklace after your standard diamond ring isn't enough to sway Mrs. To's heart, or the insatiable greed that passes for Mrs. To's heart. Mom agrees, but not without justifiable suspicion. Mrs. To is as obviously materialistic as she is elegantly beautiful, and she wastes no time plotting to snag the necklace—naturally without the added burden of marrying Steve. Within minutes of obtaining the necklace from a bank vault, Steve is assaulted by two teams of hired goons and a trained pooch, the result being a comic chase sequence and one stolen necklace.

But despite her best laid plans, Mrs. To doesn't end up with the necklace. Someone else snakes it from her, and the obvious culprit is her ex-husband. However, even though it's obvious that Mr. To made off with the goods, his actual motive is still in question. Is he just trying to cheese off his ex-wife? Or does he covet the necklace too? Or—in accordance with the usual Sammi Cheng-Andy Lau audience desire—is he doing it because he still loves his ex-wife, and wants to stop her wedding? To find out, Mrs. To gives immediate chase after the charmingly casual Mr. To, who doesn't deny the theft, but doesn't make any effort to come clean either. Instead, the two start to pal around, trading verbal barbs and professional swipes, all the while recalling their glorious salad days. Will love blossom between the two ex-lovers once more?

The quick answer: no. Yesterday Once More is not a film about two people falling in love for the first or even the second time; It's about two people who've always been in love, but have simply let circumstances get in the way, be they greed, pride, or maybe something else. That something else is the big question at the heart of Yesterday Once More. The filmmakers pony up an answer, but it's a manufactured plot detail that smells more like a screenwriting shortcut than earned drama. That's because the ninety minutes preceding the big "what's it all about" revelation is blithe, frothy stuff that's told in Johnnie To's patented obtuse storytelling style. As the characters go about their little cat-and-mouse game, it's the slight actions and minute detail that are supposed to entertain, and not any overt musings on life, love, and larceny. The sparring between Mr. and Mrs. To is supposed to be witty and amusing for its misdirection, oblique reference, and dazzling star exchanges, and the combination partially works. This is a movie, and seeing movie stars smile at one another does carry some weight.

Yet because it's all so light and frothy, Yesterday Once More screeches to an ultimate halt when it cannot do what it seemingly should: satisfy its audience. Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau are the closest thing current Hong Kong Cinema has to screen royalty, and putting them in a film creates automatic expectations. Yesterday Once More satisfies some of those expectations by giving them suave characters in the Cary Grant/Grace Kelly mold. Both Mr. To and Mrs. To are To Catch a Thief-types that ooze charm, grace, and above-it-all worldliness, and Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng mine their practiced chemistry and dazzling charisma to create iconic movie-type characters. It's all very charming and subtly cool, like Ocean's Eleven reduced to To's Two—only without an actual caper to anchor the thing. Not having a big blow-out event is fine if some sort of conflict would appear to turn this into a grand Hollywood-style romance. But it doesn't. The big payoff is quiet and coyly affecting, and also something of an emotional downer. On paper there's a certain poetry to what happens in Yesterday Once More, but when it all comes down, it doesn't feel very satisfying.

But should this movie be satisfying? That's a bigger question that probably can't be answered by any one film reviewer, especially not one who thought Needing You was great, great stuff. Fans of Johnnie To's obtuse, ironic, and cinematic style might still find great satisfaction in the playful cat-and-mouse storytelling, which uses deadpan repetition and droll characterization to elicit giggles. Celebrity watchers have Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng to occupy their senses, and even if they aren't entirely satisfied by the outcome of the film, they still got their two-hour fill of the stars. But those looking for a simple good time at the movies may not be too pleased. Maybe Needing You redux isn't necessary to satisfy the masses, but creating a film that tantalizes and ultimately confounds the target audience doesn't seem like the best alternative, either. There's something sly and subversively clever about the love story Johnnie To choses to tell, but the big payoff of Yesterday Once More seems more like an elaborate practical joke than an ardent act of affection. This looks like Johnnie To's official deconstruction of the sophisticated romance genre, which would be business as usual for Hong Kong's top commercial auteur. Even in his most fluffy films, To has attempted some sort of genre subversion, and the results have usually been more successful than not. Unfortunately, in aiming for such arch cleverness, Yesterday Once More leans towards not. (Kozo 2004)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mega Star / Media Asia
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various extras

image courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen