'Romancing in Thin Air'

A superstar and his erstwhile fan develop a high-concept romance when thrown together in an inn two-and-a-half miles above sea level in Johnnie To's gorgeous-looking escapist meller "Romancing in Thin Air."

A superstar and his erstwhile fan develop a high-concept romance when thrown together in an inn two-and-a-half miles above sea level in Johnnie To’s gorgeous-looking escapist meller “Romancing in Thin Air,” the Hong Kong helmer’s follow-up to last year’s similarly mainland-targeted “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Still overwrought but less calculated than the earlier effort, the pic’s should enjoy respectable returns in Greater China given its skedded pre-Valentine’s Day release and the A-list leads’ cozy chemistry. Offshore, To’s action or arthouse fans won’t be holding their collective breath.

While onstage to receive an acting award, Hong Kong screen god Michael Lau (Louis Koo) proposes to his mainland co-star, Yuan Yuan (Gao Yuanyuan). At the paparazzi-packed wedding reception, however, the bride runs away with her first love, coal miner Zhang Xing (Wang Baoqiang).

Michael hits the bottle, and has the unlikely coincidence of tumbling into the back of a truck bound for the Himalayas, where Shangri-la is mythically located. At Deep Woods Hotel, he is nursed back to health by owner Sue (Sammi Cheng) and the local doctor (Tien Niu). Michael discovers that although Sue is absorbed with mourning her husband, Tian (Li Guangjie), who disappeared into the nearby forest seven years ago, she has been a closet fan of his. In fact, a flashback reveals a parallel romance in which Michael was instrumental in bringing Tian and Sue together.

The last time Cheng and Koo toplined a film was nine years ago, in the 2003 romantic comedy “Love for All Seasons,” which To directed with Wai Ka-fai. The two films play like sister pieces: Both establish love as a process of rehabilitation, concluding that hearts must be broken as a prelude to embracing life, and both take risks with florid plotting that requires indulgent suspension of disbelief. While “Love” gets by on throwaway humor and a consistently light tone, “Romancing” strikes a more somber and philosophical note, reinforced by pseudo-profound motifs, like using high-altitude disease and the forest as metaphors for the hazards of plunging into a relationship. This puts considerable onus on the thesps to make their already farfetched behavior convincing.

The leads acquit themselves well in scenes with each other, conveying the rapport of affectionate platonic friends rather than the heat of passionate lovers, which makes sense, since each is still wounded by their most recent relationship. Perfs are also more subdued, reflecting a subtle distinction from the animated pitch customary for Hong Kong romances. Cheng is less at ease when paired with mainland thesp Li, whose gormless country-lad role feels bogus and idealized; Wang’s pure-hearted miner, meanwhile, borders on a snarky parody of his “World Without Thieves” screen image as a noble idiot.

As with To’s other non-action outings, the ideas put forward by regular scripter Wai (who penned the screenplay with Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan and Jevons Au) play against the director’s execution. As a result, the pic is peppered with metafilmic gestures whereby the protags’ love lives become mixed up with characters in the date movies they see; even the pic’s Chinese title, “High Altitude Love II,” is a joke on the film-within-a-film trope. This will go over the heads of most mainstream auds, but at least it’s integrated into the basic plot without being as distracting or confusing as Wai’s other writing efforts.

Cheng Siu-keung’s lensing yields stunning natural vistas that span four seasons, but his compositions of the forest scenes don’t have enough depth of field to suggest an eerie, unfathomable void. A big plus is Guy Zerafa’s score, which, in addition to being free of Cantopop mawkishness, enchants with just a few bright notes on the piano. Other tech credits are excellent.

Romancing in Thin Air

Hong Kong-China

Production

A Media Asia Films (in Hong Kong) release of a Media Asia Films, China Film Media Asia presentation of a Milkyway Image production. (International sales: Media Asia Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, Zhang Guoli. Executive producer, John Chong. Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Jevons Au.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung; editor, David Richardson; music, Guy Zerafa; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Raymond Chan; costume designer, Steven Tsang; re-recording mixers (Dolby Digital), Stan Yau, Benny Chu; line producer, Elaine Chu; assistant director, Cox Chong; casting, Jiang Haiyan. Reviewed at the Grand, Hong Kong, Feb., 2, 2012. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Louis Koo, Sammi Cheng, Li Guangjie, Gao Yuanyuan, Tien Niu, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Yi. (Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)

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