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Romancing in Thin Air
Romancing in Thin Air     Romancing in Thin Air

Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng romance in Romancing in Thin Air.
Chinese: 高海拔之戀II  
Year: 2012  
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung  
  Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai, Zhang Guoli
  Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Jevons Au Man-Kit, Ryker Chan
  Cast: Louis Koo Tin-Lok, Sammi Cheng Sau-Man, Li Guangjie, Gao Yuanyuan, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Yi, Tien Niu, Wilfred Lau Ho-Lung, Li Hai-Tao
  The Skinny: A disappointment considering the stars and the filmmakers. Romancing in Thin Air attempts a clever tearjerker, but needs more comedy to sell its self-amused storyline and details. Ultimately an ill-conceived effort from Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai. Sammi Cheng is great, though.
by Kozo:

Back in 2000, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai launched Sammi Cheng into the Hong Kong Cinema stratosphere with seminal romcom Needing You, so it’s fitting that the pair reteam with Cheng for her comeback Romancing in Thin Air. This romantic drama returns Cheng to playing a regular woman and not “movie characters” like the ones she essayed in Lady Cop and Papa Crook and Everlasting Regret, and the move pays dividends. Cheng possesses limited range, but she brings personality and appeal to everyday roles, helping close the gap between script and audience by creating characters that, if they aren’t her in actuality, convince us that they could be. That natural charm is why Cheng is a star, and To and Wai seem to understand how to use her best. With Romancing in Thin Air, To and Wai keep Cheng to the playbook and she performs splendidly. But do they come through with an actual good movie? Not so fast.

In Romancing in Thin Air, Sammi Cheng plays Sue, the proprietor of the Deep Woods Hotel, a high-altitude lodging in Yunnan Province, China. Sue is grieving over the disappearance of her husband Tian (Li Guangjie), when award-winning actor and popstar Michael Lau (the self-effacing Louis Koo) enters her life. Michael was abandoned at the altar by Yuanyuan (Gao Yuanyuan), his co-star in the tearjerker My Husband’s Glasses (Note: a fake movie, obviously). Rather than seal the deal with Michael, Yuanyuan returned to her first love (Wang Baoqiang), and Michael embarked on a self-destructive bender all over China. He drunkenly ends up at Sue's hotel, sending the female staff into a tizzy while consuming their liquor, crashing Sue’s vehicles and also disassembling her prized piano. Logically, such behavior should earn Michael the heave-ho, but Sue strangely lets him stay. Her cool demeanor and quiet care eventually reach Michael, leading to a chance at new love between the superstar and the everyday girl. That is, if guilt and happenstance don't doom this fragile union.

Romancing in Thin Air has decent material to work with, from its Notting Hill-like romance to the gorgeous high-altitude location and playful meta-references. The Chinese title of the film includes a "II", indicating that it's a sequel – but not to a real film, and instead to a film within this film(!). Similarly, the movie uses film-within-a-film dialogue and moviegoing to convey some of its emotions. Particularly, the climax involves someone sitting in a movie theater, with the movie's onscreen outcome intended to touch both the character and the actual moviegoing audience, i.e. us. That's a tough but not impossible gambit, and one imagines that Wai Ka-Fai and Johnnie To have the wit and smarts to pull it off. However, in a strange move, the duo (and their Milkyway Image co-writers) go for dry rather than overt wit, reserving the hee-haws for their meta references while mounting the romance with an increasing seriousness. There are some light moments and even surprises to the Sue-Michael romance, but it's not enough to compensate for the film's force-fed tearjerker tropes.

It's understandable that Romancing in Thin Air has a serious edge; Sue's husband has been missing for seven years since he walked into a dense forest and never found his way out, and she's been waiting nervously for his return, with each year chipping away at hope. This air of melancholy leads to some dark revelations, such that tears from the audience are expected. However, the film's playful self-awareness – that coy cleverness that's a hallmark of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai's work – feels ill-fitting when combined with Romancing in Thin Air's tearjerker aspirations. Besides the film-within-a-film meta stuff, the filmmakers create a cheesy popstar image for Louis Koo's Michael, complete with ridiculous-looking films (with B-movie titles like Airport Police and Fireman), plus extravagant product placement for Pepsi that's funny, clever and embarrassing at the same time. All of this could be more effective if the film were an actual comedy. But since the film is not, the attempts at knowing humor only come off as self-satisfied filmmaker high fives.

Romancing on Thin Air needs comedy to sell both its coy cheesiness and even its darker emotions. The blueprint here could have been My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, which opened with overbearing comedy that revealed a surprising poignancy and sadness. To and Wai pulled off a fine balancing act with that 2002 film, but here the emotions lean towards somber seriousness, ultimately upending the whole apple cart. Glimpses of a different film exist; besides the familiar self-awareness, an effective flashback to Sue and Tian's initial romance shows a romcom tone that recalls other To-Wai works. Also, the story possesses character details and connections that are genuinely fun to discover. One great thing about To-Wai films is how they take backstory and character traits and make learning about them a part of the actual narrative. Less is explained, more is discovered, and characters and relationships are built with the audience as witnesses. This is one of the great strengths of To and Wai’s commercial films, and Romancing in Thin Air has that potential built in.

But again, the tearjerker storyline becomes too mired in its own seriousness, with the film rushing to a poor and unconvincing end. The cinema-set climax comes off awkwardly; one character is supposed to be touched by what they see onscreen, but the glimpses at other moviegoers crying and embracing feels like a cheap and pandering move by the filmmakers. Also, the film’s big turn – a pivotal and silent choice by another character – gets lost in the shuffle, never registering with the audience like it should. This film has too much assumed emotion and too little that actually sticks to your gut – one can see what To and Wai wanted, but they seem to have made the wrong choices right out the gate. As is, Romancing in Thin Air is disappointing, only coming through with decent performances from its leads, the picturesque Yunnan location, a beautifully produced theme song, and those occasional, teasing glimpses of a far better movie. The real sadness in Romancing in Thin Air is that everyone knows To and Wai can do better. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. But here, even with Sammi Cheng on their side, they don’t. (Kozo, 2012)

  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Megastar (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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