The action in “Comrades” spans 10 years (denoted by intertitles) starting March 1, 1986, as wide-eyed Li Xiaojun (Lai), from Tianjin, northern China, arrives at Kowloon railroad station and soon realizes he’s landed on the other side of the moon. The locals call him a mainland bumpkin, don’t understand his Mandarin, and are about as polite as a Brooklyn cabdriver. He finds sanctuary in the home of a loopy relative, Rosie (veteran Irene Tsu in an affecting cameo), who still harbors a passion for William Holden since they had afternoon tea when he was shooting “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” 30 years earlier.
Looking to earn money to marry his hometown sweetheart, Xiaoting (Kristy Yeung), Xiaojun falls in with Li Qiao (Cheung), a fellow mainlander who speaks Cantonese and works in a McDonald’s. She intros him to an English school, where the alcoholic teacher (Christopher Doyle, lenser of “Temptress Moon” and Wong Kar-wai’s pics) uses Hollywood movies as a teaching aid. In a frisson-filled sequence where friendship crosses the line to physical passion, the ambitious Qiao and dreamer Xiaojun become lovers.
Their idyll ends with the October ’87 stock market crash, which wipes out Qiao’s savings and forces her to give Xiaojun a reality check: “You’re not what brought me to H.K., and I’m not what brought you,” she notes. Starting over, she gets work as a masseuse in a seedy parlor, where she meets mobster Pau (producer Eric Tsang).
Three years later, the pair meet again at Xiaojun’s wedding and, despite their better judgment, later get it on in their favorite hotel room. Just when each has decided to leave their partner, Pau is forced to flee H.K., and Qiao goes with him. Several years later, the protagonists are both in New York, where several more rolls of fate’s dice bring their separate paths achingly close to crossing again. A postscript back to 1986 deliciously moves the goal posts on the whole movie.
Though there’s nothing particularly new in either the central love story or the theme of mainlanders’ alienation in H.K., Chan’s stylish direction and the multilayered script by Ivy Ho (returning to screenwriting after a long spell in advertising) elevate the material way beyond its simple components. There’s a Lelouchian flavor to the way in which characters’ lives bump around the pool table of life, pursuing separate dreams while connected by threads even they cannot see.
The cleverest of these — and one with huge resonances for Chinese viewers — is the duo’s shared passion for Taiwanese thrush Teresa Teng, whose idealistic Mandarin melodies entranced a whole generation of mainland and overseas Chinese during the ’70s and ’80s. (Pic’s Chinese title, which literally means “Honey Sweet,” is one of her best-known songs.) The duo’s early failure to make a living selling her albums in hard-bitten, Cantonese-speaking H.K. — and their shared grief at her death in 1995 — is the movie’s most touching expression of the often false hopes that power Chinese emigres.
None of this would work, however, without Chan’s character-driven direction, which walks a tightrope between comedy and melodrama, and excellent perfs by the whole cast. Returning to the screen after a break of over a year, Cheung, a variable actress depending on her helmer and material, has never been better, exactly catching her southern mainlander’s combination of innocence and ambition. Lai (from “Fallen Angels”) evinces real screen charisma as the more dour northerner, even under the probing close-ups that dominate Chan’s visual quilt.
In a movie where looks and glances often take over from dialogue, both thesps reach to the heart of this generous portrait of human nature, a real refresher after many of the joyless, mean-spirited work that dominates offshore Chinese cinema on the fest circuit.
Tech credits are uniformly top-drawer, with Jingle Ma’s camerawork outstanding. Pic has received 11 nominations in the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards.