Comrades, Almost A Love Story (1996)

Produced & directed by: Peter Chan
Written by: Ivy Ho
Starring: Leon Lai, Maggie Cheung, Kristy Yeung, Christopher Doyle & Eric Tsang

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Picture
Best Director (Peter Chan)
Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho)
Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
Best Supporting Actor (Eric Tsang)
Best Cinematography (Jingle Ma)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (Dora Ng)
Best Art Direction (Hai Chung Man)
Best Original Film Score (Chiu Tsang-Hei)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1997:
Best Actor (Leon Lai)
Best New Performer (Kristy Yeung)

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1997:
Best Film
Best Director (Peter Chan)
Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1996:
Best Picture
Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1996:
Best Supporting Actor (Eric Tsang)

It was not a bad night for Peter Chan and crew at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year. Comrades, Almost A Love Story is another romantic drama but a romantic drama that's quoted as THE best one out of Hong Kong cinema (or out of 90s Hong Kong cinema at least).

Li Xian-Jun (Leon Lai from City Hunter) is a mainlander arriving in Hong Kong to earn enough money for the wedding between him and his girl back home, Xiao-Ting (Kristy Yeung from Portland Street Blues). Without any knowledge of the cantonese dialect he has a hard time getting on in the city. This changes when he meets fellow mainlander Li Chiao (Maggie Cheing from Heroic Trio). Both are alone and become close friends, something that leads to a romantic relationship. Realizing the potential risk for Li Xian-Jun, Li Chiao decides to part ways but a few years later they bump into each other again...

Peter Chan's film is almost epic because it takes place over a period of 10 years (1986-1996). During that time and the running time, he tells a highly simple but low key romantic drama of the highest quality. Even if I personally don't believe there's only one love for every person, there's no doubt that the characters played by Leon and Maggie are right for each other. The tagline on Mei Ah's dvd cover just says everything and still very little about the movie:

'This is not so much a story about people falling in love, but rather of two young hearts trying their best not to fall in love with each other'.

Starting with Ivy Ho's script, it is in all it's simplicity a boy meets girl-story but just like her Anna Magdalena-script (that the art director, on this movie, Hai Chung Man directed) it's about real people like you and me. It's still a movie romance but nothing in the charactertraits feels exaggerated or unrealistic to me. Paul Thomas Anderson once said that if you do your job in the writing then the movie is almost done! Ivy Ho couldn't have provided Peter Chan with a better blueprint going into making Comrades. The long story and it's events are clearly laid out and the only thing I find negative is certain convenient plot points in the script, mainly that both Li Xian-Jin and Li Chiao end up in New York. On the other hand Ivy and Peter probably makes the point that the right thing for you may be closer than you think.

Peter may have a great script on his hands but making it fully work in pictures is a big challenge in itself. He concentrates on directing what's truly THE thing that carries the movie, actors Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung. There must lie believability in the feelings between them and Peter takes on and succeeds making that happen. Comrades is not a subtle film but it stays away from over the top melodramatics. Peter finds other, more effective, ways to handle drama which may leave viewers, expecting a weepie, underwhelmed. You may still be underwhelmed for a while afterwards but you'll no doubt know that few movies achieves this level of greatness.

The heart of Comrades is of course the two comrades, Li Xian-Jun & Li Chiao and from the moment they meet we're hooked on the movie, even in scenes where they don't know each other. This is the point where Leon and Maggie must bring starpower to captivate us in a right away. Leon Lai has already charmed by the point he meets up with Maggie but her entrance is just mind-blowing. Not that it's a special scene or anything (Li Xian-Jun trying to order a hamburger from her) but there's no denying what a moviestar Magge is. It's been a long time since I've seen any movie with her and I'd completely forgotten how beautiful she is. All this glow around her may've taken one out of the movie but she quickly erases all thoughts that we're seeing Maggie not Li Chiao. Her character has clearly done a better job disguising her mainland heritage than Li Xiao-Jun. In the beginning he's almost like a kid enthusiastically discovering things for the first time and it's up to Li Chiao to adjust him to life in the Hong Kong city.

Then we get to see obligatory scenes of two friends becoming two very good friends. Simplicity is the keyword here and what makes the bicycle scene great is not because of camera direction, lightning or sound but just the fact that these two actors ARE their respective characters. As they grow on each other Peter starts to create just the right touches for the romance or important plot points. I will not go through each special scene one by one but the very first romantic scene is worth mentioning. It takes place amidst the lunar new year celebrations and they've both reached a stage where they know there's something in the air but neither wants to take the first step. Then comes the moment when they first touch hands which leads in to a wonderful scene that is expected and unexpected. Throughout Comrades Peter doesn't miss the beats that need to be there and this is something that runs all the way through up to the closure of our story. Also an interesting thing is that Comrades serves as a source of information for those not familiar with certain aspects of China/Hong Kong, in particular the big gap between the different dialects (cantonese and mandarin) and the people. Li Xiao-Jun does not know a bit of cantonese and people almost seem to look down on mainlanders because of something like that.. Peter doesn't turn it into a moral lesson but integrates it so we get to know but are still with the flow of the film. There's also mentions of worry regarding the 1997 handover and the real life Asian financial crisis also affects the characters.

Looking at the all the received awards you understand that other aspects of Comrades are done well. I rarely mention Costume & Make Up Design but veteran Dora Ng's work deserves some space. The characters aren't aging rapidly but Dora still needs to make sure to create subtle changes that takes place over the years. Surely the actors provide much support but we're convinced of them growing and maturing, even if their appearances doesn't change a whole lot over the course of the film. Another veteran lends his eye to the production and that is cinematographer Jingle Ma. He once again blends his look with the story in a way that you rarely think about the camera, which is often a sign of a good looking movie. Cheng Tsang Hei's score has one component in particular that lends itself very well to the romance genre and that is the use of a single piano. It suits very well with a calm atmosphere. Some of Teresa Tang's songs are baked into the plot so there's the occasional ballad from her as well.

I've mentioned the superb work from our main actors but the supporting cast must not be forgotten. Award winner Eric Tsang (from Infernal Affairs) plays a triad boss that Li Chiao falls for and while his triad life is made part of the movie, we see more glimpses of his humanity and sweetness (in his own triad way). He doesn't get much screentime but makes good use of it. Kristy Yeung turn as the fiancee of Li Xian-Jun nicely mirrors Leon Lai's acting, as she is also very upbeat about experiencing a city she's never seen.

Comrades, Almost A Love Story deserves all the recognition it's received. It's one of the finest examples of the genre but Mabel Cheung's An Autumn's Tale will always be the number 1 Hong Kong romance for me. Both should be in every Hong Kong movie fans collection though.

The DVD:

This is the early Mei Ah dvd of Comrades. I stumbled upon a review of the Mei Ah import and was baffled to hear that it's got removable subtitles and a menu. Only guess is that Mei Ah prepared it for re-release and never got round to distributing in Asia. If you order it from places like Poker Industries, chances are that you may get the re-issue but there's no way of knowing because they only list one dvd version. What a mess! Despite having an advantage of a 5.1 soundtrack and removable subtitles this review actually prefers the transfer with burned in subtitles. Judge for yourself, I'm happy with my current release.

It's presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It has quite noticeable wear and colours are a bit muted. Sharpness is ok and that's the overall impression of this presentation.

Soundtracks comes in Cantonese and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0. It basically only uses the front stage for music and this movie doesn't require much else. Dialogue is at times a little distorted but works fine throughout. There's both Cantonese and Mandarin (plus a few bits in English) on the canto track but the Mandarin dub actually redid Leon Lai's Mandarin dialogue for example.

The subtitles are burned in but are very well translated and thought out. They're readable at all times and there was actual effort to provide a good translation of Peter Chan's movie. There's no extras or even a set up menu.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson