Further problems arise from Manzhen’s scruples about the taint on Shijun’s name that would come from marriage into her family, given the reputation of her older sister Manlu (Anita Mui), who is a sought-after courtesan. Forced into prostitution to support her family following the death of her father, Manlu is now hard, embittered and pushing 30. She agrees to marry creepy businessman Hongcai (Ge You), despite the fact that repeated abortions have left her unable to bear children. When Hongcai starts hankering for Manzhen and proposes taking her as his concubine and the mother of his children, Manlu colludes in the plan in order to save her marriage.
Hui and scripter Chan Kin-chung could have made the story more resonant for Western audiences by placing it more firmly within its socio-historical context: The Japanese presence in China at that time, and the resulting repression, is touched on only in passing.
But despite its slow pace and somewhat stolid feel, the film remains engrossing thanks to some fine players, drawn from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Wu (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) and Cantopop star Lai bring poignancy to the plight of the unfulfilled lovers, and the pairing of consummate actors Mui and mainlander Ge (“To Live”) provides some real pleasures. Lenser Lee Ping-bin’s elegant framing adds distinction to the classy production. Chinese title roughly means “Half a Lifetime’s Romance,” under which English name Chang’s novel is also known.