Tempting Heart (1999)

Directed by: Sylvia Chang
Written by: Sylvia Chang & Cat Kwan
Producers: John Chong & Solon So
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Gigi Leung, Karen Mok, William So, Jo Kuk, Cher Yeung, Elaine Kam & Sylvia Chang

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Screenplay (Sylvia Chang & Cat Kwan)
Best Art Direction (Man Lim-Chung)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Director (Sylvia Chang)
Best Actress (Gigi Leung)
Best Supporting Actress (Elaine Kam)
Best Costume Design (Hai Chung-Man)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2000:
Film Of Merit

Starting in 1977, Best friends Shen Sheo Rou (Gigi Leung - A War Named Desire) and Chen Li (Karen Mok - So Close) both catch the sight of quiet musician Lin Ho Jun (Takeshi Kaneshiro - Anna Magdalena). It's Shen that makes the move, successfully so and the romance with Lin blossoms in a dreamy way. When Shen gets pregnant, Chen Li is caught in the middle as the two lovers are forbidden to see each other until after graduation. A few years later in the 80s, Shen and Lin bump into each other again in Japan, having made transitions in life in their own separate ways. Meanwhile in 1990s Hong Kong, director Cheryl (Sylvia Chang) is working on a similar story for a movie project of hers...

Despite being a production from big player Media Asia, courage to place your bets on a romantic drama never seems far away despite all the faults the company has committed in other areas (1*). Sylvia Chang's 8th feature here, although I've "merely" examined Princess-D and 20 30 40 from her directorial spot of the filmography, balances simplicity and complexity quite well yet the subtle hammer can't perfectly finish off that final, touchy nail.

Being one of them epic romances, a warning light goes off almost immediately as Sylvia utilizes self contemplating voice over and arthouse techniques for her cinematographer Mark Lee to execute. Of course there are celebrated filmmakers that can go abstract roads successfully but the usage is now borderline cliché and done as a fashion statement rather than a necessity so Tempting Heart, albeit briefly, gets into trouble. By planting brief images of characters in loneliness, not knowing a suitable life skills such as whistling and showcasing jealously, Sylvia slowly reels audiences in. The audience who has decided to give the film a chance that is. Commenting within the film via the screenwriter's subplot that every simple romance may not be special in content but a unique one in itself, Sylvia wisely chooses a very simple love story as her template.

The fates of Sheo Rou and Ho Jun turns as complex as life pretty much is though, being forced to deal with issues of love, parenthood and regret of prior life choices. Director Chang stays distanced, letting fairly long takes of actors do the work and coming from someone who appreciates good things uninterrupted, the decision is very, very welcome. It also turns out thankfully that genre familiarity is a strength and Chang does fine work when dealing with those conventional moments of a romance, especially when portraying the love as fresh and innocent. While the content starts to pile up with both the youths taking on a sense of wanting to rebel, it's still a love story of the basic kind, the way Hong Kong have been able to create classics before.

The narrative holds surprises and more challenges though as we're plunged a few years ahead in time after a key event between Sheo and Ho. Living separate lives and connecting once more, the film's central questions starts to take shape and subsequently take on a valid nature. It's about the classic savour not just the moment but taking the correct fate crossroads no matter what that is, that is hammered home. An affecting point coming from the characters we've come to know and now Chang also pours on the actual structural challenge of the film. Opting to cut rather drastically into events, ahead AND back in time, this is Chang's option to provide depth and weight, a choice that ranks as concrete, even though certain symbolism is over the top. But here comes the easily, yet annoyingly hard to explain BUT of the film.

I'll start off by saying that Tempting Heart for all its finer points rarely become AS emotionally gripping as Sylvia Chang wants it to be. Oh, you don't need a 500 piece string orchestra to get to our touchy spots and it's not a crime to be low-key either. It's perhaps as simple as Sylvia not quite being adept at getting that nail hammered into the picture to connect all subtleties on display. I've seen it subsequently, which means it's still a bit of a problem for the otherwise talented director.

It's pretty much a picture perfect cast who delivers suitable performances though. At first a tough sell as a school girl, Gigi Leung possesses the naivety and sweetness needed for someone like Takeshi Kaneshiro to fall in love with and in adult mode, radiates the inner turmoil of regrets and difficulties to commit to anything but her professional life. Backed by a director of note, Gigi once again showcases that she very much can (2*). Takeshi Kaneshiro is described in the film as "warm hearted" and that's not a bad description for most of his better performances (3*). Very much an introvert initially, hence choosing the subdued route of communicating through his guitar playing, Ho Jun is very sincere and does both a right and wrong thing throughout by not having progressed by the time he re-meets with Sheo. He's seemingly holding on still and fights in a non-intrusive way to reel Sheo in again. Takeshi seems to do some of the same acting throughout his films but when it's fitting, it's hardly anything to complain about. While fine in her role, Karen Mok falls ever so slightly under Sylvia Chang's bit of a curse as director, never quite getting character conflict and emotions across to our hearts.

Tempting Heart isn't undeserving of its script award as it offers up a classic, natural love story through the ages and with common, complex central questions, it's certainly engaging on a thematic level. But again, I wish I could say what Sylvia Chang should do to churn out a masterpiece. Them pieces are there and pretty much all connected. Filmmaking choices are very valid and concrete but clearly wanting to achieve more things emotionally, Tempting Heart I guess becomes too subdued when it clearly doesn't want to. I'll just continue to try and I hope Sylvia does as well.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.76:1 approximately. A dark and muddled transfer largely, with poor contrast and detail, the fact that it's clean doesn't help much.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track (also featuring some slight Japanese and English) uses music mostly to open up the front stage, all to decent effect. Dialogue sounds clear. A Mandarin 5.1 option is also available.

The English subtitles has some sloppy grammar, goes slightly out of synch at times but presents a coherent translation overall. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras starts with Star's Files for Takeshi Kaneshiro, Gigi Leung and Karen Mok. Takeshi and Leung's files are basic breakdowns that aren't better than simple listings of their films really while Mok's bio goes a little deeper into the persona of the talented actress. 3 trailers for Tempting Heart are also on board and that's it!

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Areas concerning materials used for various dvd releases but that's a story for another time kids.

(2) Derek Yee showed his usual strength of tapping into untested talent when directing Gigi in Full Throttle alongside Andy Lau. A blank performance seemingly, I'm of the opinion that it didn't do any harm at all to that film.

(3) Reference material being the roles in Lee Chi-Ngai's unappreciated weepie Lost And Found and award winning art director Hai Chung Man's debut film Anna Magdalena.