Return of the Queen
I am never quite the fan of Johnnie To's romantic films of recent times, especially since Linger shouldn't have lingered, and Don't Go Breaking My Heart had an interesting premise, but ultimately you can feel that it got made with an eye for the Mainland market, and had a final act in China which bordered so close on the ridiculously impossible. But with his Milkyway creative team firmly behind him, they have now roared back with a solidly crafted romantic classic that would put the Nicholas Sparks films that Hollywood consistently churns out these days to sit up and realize that this part of the world can play the same game.
Romancing in Thin Air welcomes the empathic return of Sammi Cheng since her last film outing in Lady Cop & Papa Crook back in 2008. She plays Sue, a woman who has been holding onto memories of her missing husband Tian (Li Guangjie), refusing to give in that after 7 years since he's lost in a thick forest that he had simply passed on. Adamant that he will one day return to where they last parted, she now works at the Deep Woods Hotel in the snowy picturesque mountainous region of the Yunnan province (which accounts for the thinness of air in the title), waiting for that eventual day to come.
But here comes a movie star to gatecrash that melancholic mood. Louis Koo's Michael Lau is a big time Hong Kong actor who got unceremoniously left at the altar after his actress wife to be Yuan Yuan (Gao Yuanyuan) decided to skip out publicly when her husband in China paid a tearful visit for her return home, leaving him an emotional wreck who turned to the bottle, and eventually found his way to Deep Woods Hotel by mistake (or by chance, depending on how you would like to interpret it). Koo keeps his character bearded for the most parts, charming everyone in the small province from the hotel staff, to the doctor (Tien Niu) who treated him, everyone eager to pose for a picture especially without his knowing and in his most unflattering state.
As you would have guessed it, this is a story about two characters whose togetherness will bring about natural therapy from the pain each of them are bearing, and would find that spark of companionship and romanticism thanks to frequent bike rides and sunsets. This rehabilitation of two broken souls provide that emotional grounding that's requisite for a romantic film like this one to work, and screenwriters such as Wai Ka-Fai and Yau Nai-Hoi pile such moments on, especially since both Koo and Cheng share some wonderful chemistry on screen together. And you know the characters are made for each other when Sue is discovered to be a long time fan of Michael Lau the actor, just like how fairy tales get crafted with one about to be fulfilled now.
It's curious to note that the Chinese title had a "2", implying a sequel of sorts. I had gone back to To's filmography to look for the original, but unless my research came up short, I believe it's referring to the two stories we get for the price of one here, the first being that of Sue and Ting which took up a significant portion of time in the middle act, before it goes on with the present in Sue and Michael. Or of course referring to the second chances that both characters have in front of them, if only they were to let go of the past and commit to the present. In a certain way you can say this is more of a Sammi Cheng comeback vehicle and marks her second film renaissance and career resurrection, which in itself overpowers that of Cecilia Cheung's collective comeback film efforts last year.
I am always of the opinion that the more successful romances on film are either romantic comedies, or romantic tragedies. This film had a sprinkling of comedic moments mostly put into the first act, although not the main focus of the movie, and making it the latter will just shortchange the audience and perhaps spoil the mood for some as they celebrate this February's main celebratory highlight. But still it managed to tackle and include an aspect of it in brilliant terms to allow for a meta based finale that says a lot more than was left unspoken, and provided that oomph to the finale that had some unavoidable morbidity put into it.
Romancing in Thin Air is obviously Milkyway's offering this Valentine's Day period, and given its down to earth treatment, nevermind it being steeped with certain cliches, set against a breathtaking backdrop of snowy white mountains and plains, it scores with its moving soundtrack, wonderful cast and having just about everything right to make this an unforgettable trip for old fashioned romantics. Recommended for all lovers the week to come!