More active as producer than director the past decade, Hong Kong’s Peter Chan takes a big roll of the dice with “Perhaps Love,” a Mainland-set romantic tuner with big, splashy numbers, a pan-Asian cast and a plot spun from candy floss. Handsomely lensed and designed, but less secure on the dramatic side, this melange of musical styles set in Shanghai’s filmdom faces an uphill task finding auds in the West, but should perform better in East Asia, where pic goes wide in early December.
Occasional attempts to revive the genre in Hong Kong have been more successful with de facto musicals like the 1989 “A Fishy Story” and 1995 “The Phantom Lover” rather than with clunkers like the dance drama, “Para Para Sakura” (2001). As a full-bore musical, “Perhaps Love” should prove a litmus test for the genre’s future, at least in China and Japan.
Aside from his foray into Hollywood (“The Love Letter,” 1999), this is Chan’s first full-length Chinese feature since “Comrades, Almost a Love Story” (1996). Aficionados of the helmer’s Hong Kong movies will spot many parallels with “Perhaps Love.”
Contrary to expectations, the pic isn’t a tribute to classic Mandarin musicals of the ’50s and ’60s: Chan’s reference points seem to be Western tuners like “Chicago,” “Sweet Charity” or “The Phantom of the Opera” more than old-time Shaw Brothers or Cathay musicals. At heart, “Perhaps Love” is a lightly tragic three-way love story about the forces that bind and separate people, similar in theme to earlier pics like “Comrades” or “Tom, Dick, and Hairy” (1993) but with a fantastical setting that recalls “The Age of Miracles” (1995).
In a device that isn’t properly developed beyond being a bookend, story is intro’d by a ringmaster-like figure called Montage (South Korean TV star Ji Jin-hee), who says he puts scenes back into people’s lives when they realize they’ve made the wrong choice. Circus-like atmosphere comes alive in a big opening number with artists and acrobats, all of which turns out to be from a movie being shot in a Shanghai studio.
Film’s helmer, Nie Wen (Jacky Cheung) is going through a crisis. The local press accuse him of selling out to offshore coin and having to use a Hong Kong star. More to the point, that star, Lin Jiandong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is an old flame of the movie’s female lead, Sun Na (Zhou Xun), Nie’s protege and great love.
Sun is frosty when she meets Lin, and denies she ever knew him. But flashbacks tell the audience otherwise.
Pic shuttles back and forth between the present and past, mixing musical numbers from the movie being made with others in “real” life. Fearing a rebirth of his two stars’ love affair, Nie casts himself in the role of the movie’s circus manager, and “real” life and the movies start to become inextricably intertwined.
Basic weakness of Aubrey Lam and Raymond To’s script is the same as the film’s approach to its musical numbers: there’s no unifying style. Though the 12 musical sequences come thick and fast, the film also takes a while to find a proper rhythm, which isn’t helped by unnecessarily flashy editing in the first 45 minutes.
Still, from midpoint on, as Zhou and Kaneshiro are allowed more space, the central love story does start to engage, in quieter scenes that show Chan doing what he does best — playing the grace-notes in relationships rather than the major chords.
Mainland star Zhou (“Suzhou River,” “Baober in Love”) is especially good as the pixie-like Sun, nicknamed “Monkey.” The film benefits from casting leads who are singers as well as thesps. Though he’s dubbed into Mandarin for his dialogue scenes, Hong Kong’s Cheung sings robustly in his “Phantom”-like musical numbers — more so than Kaneshiro, who’s the weakest of the three vocally. Comedians Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng cameo as hardnosed H.K. exec producers.
Khan’s group choreography and Leon Ko’s antsy songs hit the bell most memorably in a standout sequence one hour in — hookers gyrating in an alleyway — that recalls not only “Big Spender” but also a riff on the same number in “A Fishy Story.” In general, however, Chan shows more aptitude in the more intimate musical numbers — often montages with voice and guitar accompaniment — than the bigger ones.
Tech package is fine, with Christopher Doyle’s lensing of wintry Beijing nicely contrasting with Peter Pau’s richer, warmer photography of the Shanghai-set sequences.