Everlasting Regret (2005)

Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Written by: Elmond Yeung
Producers: Willie Chan, Chen Baoping, Fang Jun & Xu Pengle
Starring: Sammi Cheng, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Hu Jun, Daniel Wu, Huang Jue & Su Yan

Buy the DVD (1 disc) at:
HK Flix.com

Buy the DVD (2 disc Limited Edition) at:
HK Flix.com

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
Best Actress (Sammi Cheng)
Best Supporting Actor (Hu Jun)
Best Supporting Actress (Su Yan)
Best Art Direction (William Cheung)
Best Costume Design & Make-up (William Cheung)

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2006:
Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai)
Film Of Merit

Based on the 1996 award winning novel "Changhen Ge" (also known as "Song Of Everlasting Sorrow"), the author Wang Anyi is regarded as a speaker for the Chinese younger generation, a breaker of taboos (topics in "Love Trilogy" such as sex in very explicit form was a choice that was criticized) but more notable, a depictor of life in Shanghai. She's also collaborated with Mainland director Chen Kaige on the screenplay for Temptress Moon. Capturing the hearts and minds of millions of readers with "Changhen Ge" (it was later voted as the most influential work of the 90s in China), as these things go, it was almost inevitable that someone would want to carry the epic scope of the novel over to the feature film format.

Enter director Stanley Kwan who has been no stranger to novel adaptations (Rouge, Red Rose, White Rose, Lan Yu), popular festival director abroad but not so much anymore in Hong Kong since his sensitivity isn't the prime taste of audience in Hong Kong today (Rouge will always be a beloved classic though, much more so now since its stars Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui have both passed away). Seeing as co-productions, in particular with China, is more than ever a possibility for Hong Kong filmmakers, Everlasting Regret got backing and a mixed talent pool, including Hu Jun (Lan Yu), Tony Leung Ka-Fai (The Lover, Election), Daniel Wu (Purple Storm) and more importantly, the queen of Canto-pop, box-office and romantic comedies, the untested Sammi Cheng (Needing You, Love On A Diet). The production was hounded by the evil tabloids due to the secretive nature of Sammi's illness during filming and at the forefront was Tony Leung trying to fend off reporters. Eventually opening to lukewarm reviews and box-office, reportedly the attention took its toll on the hard working Sammi Cheng in particular who has remained a bit reclusive ever since. So now that the dust has settled, those of us with no care about gossip and more about about films, it's time for an outside viewer and one unfamiliar with the entire content of Wang Anyi's novel to examine Everlasting Regret.

Wang Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) is a student that gets noticed by photographer Mr. Cheng (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) who enters her into the Shanghai beauty pageant. She ends up as a winner as well as the object of desire for high ranking Officer Li (Hu Jun). The good life as a mistress comes to an end though as the city of Shanghai and China go through unstable times...

"When the city is no longer your city, history can turn the right man into the wrong choice"

With this quote, Stanley Kwan opens Everlasting Regret, a supposed emotional roller coaster ride through the changing times in Shanghai history. While Kwan never really has been the abstract director (he's still considered art house), he has put forth challenges of giving his audiences very little to work with initially, skillfully injecting substance in a narrative as he rolls along. Here is one of the problems with Everlasting Regret and while it may as well have to do the fact that I am an outside viewer looking in on a world I never experienced but Kwan communicates very much to himself, and not his audience.

Reading up on your basic Shanghai history certainly helps but Kwan removes (or rather censors apparently) large, bombastic political statements, hence much of the film taking place indoors or close to the living quarters of our main characters. A newsflash, noisy crowds outside windows, that's as close as we get to where we are in the turbulent timeline (outside of some helpful title cards). And this all seems to be more than enough when we're starting out as Kwan immediately plunges us into the teenage version of Wang Qiyao, her friendship with Lili (Su Yan) and the men in her life. Kwan's choice makes sense because Wang is equally to a large degree thrown head first into the glamour of life, relationships and seeing the effects of, in the case of the initial era, the war has on life. Wang unwillingly loses out on Officer Li (Hu Jun) and really never strays away from the city that nurtured her, creating a shell where only the necessities of life such as children are eventually taken care of (in an arranged manner). It was ultimate love she felt back then and it's never returned to her later. Only friendships are maintained somewhat, especially with the husband of her best friend, photographer Mr Cheng. It's up to this point that I'm satisfied as Kwan uses his distanced, understated style and delivers felt emotions.

Approaching the latter parts of the film, mainly the 1970s portion is where that understated nature beats Kwan to his knees. Characters around Wang, Cheng and Lili were a bit undefined before. Now it's downright difficult to find distinguishable traits, reasoning and sense of place in ones as Kela (Huang Jue) for instance. Wang's inner turmoil harking back to the affair with Officer Li is still the driving force but Kwan is standing in the way of us, barely letting us catch a glimpse over his shoulder and that my friends is frustrating. In that regard, I have my doubts that devotees of Wang Anyi's work is satisfied even.

The drama is a watchable one obviously, much thanks also to the great showcasing of William Cheung's (Lan Yu, Happy Together) production design. Despite little glances of the city, incredible detail has been put into every aspect of the surroundings without it being glaringly obvious that he's showing off. Same with sound, perfectly evoking the atmosphere of the times and really the technical aspects of Everlasting Regret deserves kudos in the form of awards later in 2006.

But the largest selling point has to be Sammi Cheng's performance and unavoidably you think of Stanley Kwan's other actress directing triumphs. Anita Mui in Rouge and Maggie Cheung in Center Stage need not to feel threatened but Cheng comes through with a respectable, breakthrough act in her radically different genre path taken with this movie. Capturing the alluring beauty of Wang that men fall for, being very telling when it comes to showcasing the emotional ride of hers as well as seamlessly embodying the old Wang, Cheng works better as the soft, subtle performer (which is traits tailor made for a Stanley Kwan film) but the rare 2-3 times she gets really emotional here, an inexperience surfaces that makes delivery awkward. Yet, it's a beginning hopefully for Cheng and proof that she should be invited by others to have onboard as an serious dramatic actress. Veteran Tony Leung Ka-Fai gets caught up in the distance Kwan manages to throw up on the screen but nevertheless is a reliable performer that can communicate through very little.

So Everlasting Regret is easy to respect and drool over but not for the primary reasons Stanley Kwan wants. Surely portraying Wang Anyi's novel was never going to be an easy task in the first place, especially not in close to 2 hours but his purposes are very clear and immersing up to a certain point. Then Everlasting Regret doesn't extend its hand anymore and the very low-key, epic scope and emotions barely seem to exist beyond the characters. Those more close to home may recognize these criticized elements as masterful subtle strokes, perfectly evoking the evolving times of Shanghai. Very well, this Westerner perhaps wasn't the right target audience but on the flip side, how ever sad it is to admit, I think Stanley missed his target on this one ultimately.

The DVD:

Panorama presents the film in an anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio of 1.82:1 approximately. Clean and clear, sharpness does well overall but a slight softness lies over the presentation. Nevertheless a respectful transfer.

Spoken language is Mandarin and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track presents dialogue mostly well (some passages are drowned out by music). The score is very enveloping when it hits also. A DTS-ES option for the Mandarin as well as a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also available.

The English subtitles are very well-written and translates even the most vital credits in addition to the title cards throughout. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras package starts on the first disc as an Cantonese audio commentary with director Stanley Kwan is offered up but sadly there are no subtitles available. Trailers for Drink Drank Drunk and Election can also be accessed. Viewers who opted for the Limited Edition gets a second disc of special features that does come with optional English subtitles.

The Exclusive Interviews section contains programs with director Stanley Kwan (22 minutes, 13 seconds) and actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai (14 minutes, 52 seconds). Kwan dissects characters which turns out to be more personal portrayals of his rather than copies from the novel, the reactions to Sammi Cheng's casting before, the reactions by audiences afterwards and 80s Hong Kong cinema compared to the conditions now, all in a generally informative way. Tony offers up good notes about his work, reminiscing about his prior collaboration with Kwan (Center Stage), how Mr. Cheng differs from the novel, his personal difficulties with the aging aspect of the character and his approach to working with Sammi.

Pre-production photos is an animated slide show (2 minutes, 28 seconds) covering the furniture collection at Shanghai Film Studios as used in the film, Kwan's script notes and location photos. Not terribly special but an unusual feature for a Hong Kong dvd. Another slide show (1 minute, 47 seconds) comes next, focusing on promotional materials such as poster designs and lobby cards. Looks nice although both these features could've been better with manual navigation and an option to zoom in.

(from the Stanley Kwan interview and making-of)

The obligatory making-of (10 minutes) contains more philosophy discussions from character perspectives by the cast & crew and little else in terms of good info. Some raw footage from costume tests represents the sole standout here. Also available are 3 shorter edits of the same program, all 3 minutes at length respectively but there's seemingly no additional footage contained within.

Trailer section has both the Hong Kong and International trailer. Selling it to Hong Kong audiences meant taking more challenging routes as opposed to the very straightforward international spot without dialogue. It's essentially the same edit though. 2 TV spots rounds off the supplemental disc.

Also accompanying the Limited Edition box is a fully illustrated 40 page color booklet, featuring both Chinese and English information. The content goes over the traits of the book that was praised, Stanley Kwan provides a well-written Director's Statement and breakdowns of various elements of the film (including technical and his own impressions of Shanghai then compared to now). Since some of this behind the scenes info is not covered in the dvd programs, its inclusion here is welcome. The booklet concludes with informative biographies/filmographies for the cast & crew, even including William Cheung and author Wang Anyi. A small bottle of Florida Water perfume is also added to the Limited goodies. The packaging promises "An Essay On The Film By Sammi Cheng" but unless it's an item from the booklet that has not received an English translation, then it's a no-show.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson