A strong cast and an equally strong script make "Desires of the Heart" everything Tsui Hark's recent "All About Women" wasn't: an entertaining, well-written romantic comedy centered on femme archetypes in contempo China.

A strong cast and an equally strong script make “Desires of the Heart” everything Tsui Hark’s recent “All About Women” wasn’t: an entertaining, well-written romantic comedy centered on femme archetypes in contempo China. Following the recent mainland trend toward multi-character stories, this fourth feature by Ma Liwen is further proof she’s emerging as one of China’s most talented writer-directors, even though she’s been ignored by the fest circuit since her artier sophomore outing, “You and Me” (2005). Late November release grossed a very respectable 28 million yuan ($4.5 million) in China.

“Desires of the Heart’s” complex production history hardly shows in the finished result. Originally written as the story of one man (played by mainland star Ge You) and his affairs with five women, the pic started shooting in June 2006, with Ge and actresses Vivian Wu and Fan Bingbing. After production halted — reportedly because of a dispute between Ma and Ge — Ma went on to direct the black comedy “Lost and Found.” Production on “Desires” resumed in August 2008 under the banner of three Hong Kong companies, and with the the script cleverly reworked so the Ge/Wu story is just one of five couples’ separate stories. Some of Fan’s footage survives in a brief flashback near the end of the Ge/Wu tale.

Female p.o.v. is established at the start as the five characters introduce themselves. There’s 28-year-old virgin Zhang Ying (Mei Ting, touching), who despairs of ever finding a man; ambitious Xiaomei (Li Xiaolu, super-cute), who’ll only marry a man with plenty of green; and shy Lin Cong (Song Jia, mellow), who’s inherited a bundle but keeps it quiet when auditioning suitors.

More circumspect about getting hitched again are two older divorcees: single mother Ye Shengying (Wu, deglammed), who enrolls at a dating agency, and mid-50s boutique owner Gao Yajuan (Yuen Chau), who’s enjoying her new freedom.

Each woman’s romantic entanglement has a slightly different tone. But smooth cross-cutting among the stories surprisingly never jars, largely thanks to the way in which the thesps manage to give basic stereotypes an appealing face.

Lightest in tone is Xiaomei’s calculating pursuit of a banker’s son (Duan Yihong); more serious is Ye’s courtship by a long-haired charmer (usually bald Ge, in a wild toupee). Somewhere in the middle are the charming yarns of Lin and a nice-guy chef (Li Chen), and Zhang’s romance with an old schoolfriend (Geng Le) that stumbles when she insists on marriage before sex.

Subtlest, and most genuine, is the yarn involving Gao and a guy (Guo Tao) who seems almost too good to be true. Despite having been revoiced by a native Mandarin speaker, the mature Yuen (“Kung Fu Hustle”) is aces as Gao, blending nicely with experienced comic Guo, who downplays here.

Apart from a lull in the final reel, the tempo is maintained smoothly until the end. Original d.p. Wu Di’s lensing of the Ge/Wu story is noticeably less glossy than William Chan’s work on the rest of the pic, but fits the more sober tone of that story.

Desires of the Heart

Hong Kong

Production

A Sil-Metropole Organisation, Media Asia Films, Edko Films presentation. Produced by Fong Ping. Executive producers, Song Dai, John Chong, Bill Kong. Directed, written by Ma Liwen, from a story by Ma, He Di.

Crew

Camera (color), William Chan, Wu Di; editor, Zhan Haihong; music, Henry Lai; art directors, Tang Zhengyu, Cao Jiuping; costume designer, Tong Huamiao; sound (Dolby), Rocky Zhang. Reviewed on DVD, London, March 10, 2009. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Ge You, Vivian Wu, Fan Bingbing, Cong Shan, Li Xiaolu, Duan Yihong, Song Jia, Li Chen, Mei Ting, Geng Le, Guo Tao, Yuen Chau, Liu Zhenyun, Li Fengxu, Chen Xibei, Li Na, Gao Fei, Han Xinting, Meng Tingyi, Geng Han, Li Meihao. (Mandarin dialogue)
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