Auds may come out whistling the music and talking about the production design, but unfortunately they won’t praise much else in “Everlasting Regret.” Hong Kong helmer Stanley Kwan’s handsome but dramatically under-cooked tribute to Old Shanghai is not helped by a mask-like lead perf from Hong Kong singer-actress Sammi Cheng and a script that reads like a Cliff Notes history of Shanghai, 1947-’81. Pic races through its story and sizable cast with an apparent disregard for whether anyone is watching. Kwan’s name and movie’s exoticism will push it round the festival circuit, but distribs could regret buying this one.
Pic engendered considerable advance interest as Kwan’s first movie in a decade unrelated to personal gay issues, and also because it’s based on a bestselling 1996 novel by mainland author Wang Anyi that did much to revive the Shanghai nostalgia trend. (Wang’s book has also been adapted into a TV drama series and a stage play.)
Film starts with an impressive energy as, in post-WWII Shanghai, schoolgirl Wang Qiyao (Cheng) is introduced by her best friend, Lili (Su Yan), to a photog, the twinkle-eyed Mr. Cheng (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Suspicious of his designs but eventually agreeing to meet him for tea, Qiyao is persuaded by Cheng to enter the Miss Shanghai contest, in which she wins third prize.
With wall-to-wall period songs and music on the soundtrack and burnished production and costume design by William Chang, this first reel is dazzling — closer to Tsui Hark’s semi-stylized “Shanghai Blues” than a realistic portrait of the city, but none the worse for that.
Qiyao (who, after her win, suddenly looks considerably older than a teenager) attracts the attention of a smooth KMT high-up, Officer Li (Hu Jun), who deflowers her, whisks her into high society and captures her heart. However, when Li, who’s investigating business corruption in the city, is forced into hiding by threats to his life, Qiyao is left alone, especially when Lili moves to Hong Kong.
By this point, just under halfway through, the pic’s dramatic problems start to show. With scarcely any exteriors and all interiors shot with a compressed depth of field that increases their visual claustrophobia, it’s clear this is an idealized, studio-centered Shanghai rather than a living, breathing city.
Chang’s spotless costumes and use of burnt colors (greens, reds, golds) in every scene distance rather than engage the audience in the emotions of the characters, who, in Cheng and Hu’s case, aren’t much more than talking mannequins anyway. Their parting and sense of loss, which should be traumatic, comes over as simply one more dramatic contrivance.
The script’s anxiousness to keep pressing ahead — as well as all the dialogue to pinpoint the era — is consistently at the expense of dramatic depth. (Dates have to be worked out, from odd clues here and there.) Film’s basic theme of a woman always left by her men hardly gets off the starting block emotionally, and Shanghai itself registers more as an exercise in abstract production design than as a city in perpetual motion.
As pic moves into the PRC era, the costuming is toned down a notch or two but still looks pretty comfy in Huang Lian’s textured lensing. Story charges ahead from 1956, with Qiyao falling for, getting pregnant by and then left by rich kid Kang Mingxun (Daniel Wu).
Luckily, Mr. Cheng is still around to help her, both prior to the Cultural Revolution and after it. Leung’s Mr. Cheng is the one character and performance that really registers amid all the fast-forwards. The whole story is essentially told as a tale of unrequited love through the eyes of Leung’s initially commanding, later broken, photog.
Unfortunately, with Sammi Cheng, the acting traffic only runs one way: Terrific at contempo H.K. comedy/romancers, often in ditzy roles, the Canto-star is out of her depth here. When Kwan occasionally ups the emotional temperature to pure melodrama, the results are not good at all.
Other thesps don’t get much chance to register, with Hu and Wu not much more than handsome cut-outs as Qiyao’s lovers. Huang Jue has brief, more natural moments as a late-on b.f., but the freshest and most engaging of the supports is Mainland actress Su (from TV drama) as Qiyao’s lively best friend, Lili.