One of two feature bows by Hong Kong-based d.p.’s to unspool in this year’s Cannes Official Selection (the other being Chris Doyle’s “Away With Words”), “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a long trip to nowhere. Portrait of four mainlanders’ dull lives in the social underbelly of the former Crown Colony dissipates a valid idea with slow, over-mannered direction and a script that virtually grinds to a halt two-thirds of the way through. Arty fests may be fooled into thinking something is going on here, but distribs are unlikely to be returning calls on this one.
Director-writer Nelson Yu Lik-wai, who studied cinematography in Belgium, previously shot two interesting indie productions, Jia Zhangke’s “Xiao Wu” (1998) and Ann Hui’s “Ordinary Heroes” (1999), and made the 1996 docu “Neon Goddesses.” The most striking thing is the look of “Love,” which is richly composed and has an eye for telling details — totally different from the more gritty, uncomposed feel of both Hui and Jia’s pics. But apart from that (and one of the lead performances), the movie plays like Wong Kar-wai’s visually restrained “Days of Being Wild” without the subtext or surprises.
First character introduced is Ying (mainland newcomer Wang Ning), who arrives in H.K., starts work as a hooker and attracts the attention of Jian (Tony Leung Kar-fai), a small-time crook who runs a low-rent porno video business. Jian has an on-off relationship with Yan (Lu Liping), also a longtime immigrant, who once ran a dance school but now works as an elevator girl.
Fourth part of the equation is Chun (newcomer Rolf Chow), from Hainan island, who repairs elevators and bears a grudge against Jian for giving him a hard time when he tried to rent one of his videos.
Characters mostly mope around, either doing everyday chores or telling people their stories. When their paths do cross it’s to no significant or revelatory effect; the only one to make a decision at the end simply returns to an equally boring life back on the mainland.
Sole thesp to carve anything out of the thin material is Lu (“The Blue Kite”), one of China’s finest actresses of her generation, who gives Yan a weary dignity and believability. Wang is a striking physical presence as the hooker but doesn’t have much to chew on, while Leung (“The Lover”), who also produced — with Stanley Kwan — through his own company, is purely reliable.
Ironic Chinese title means “Life in Heaven,” which is considerably better than the overblown English one. Prior to its Cannes screening, Yu’s pic debuted in a sidebar of the Hong Kong fest — which is where it really belongs.