(Cantonese, Mandarin and English dialogue)
Starting out as a fairly standard romantic drama, “Tempting Heart” develops increasing layers of emotional complexity to become a moving tale of remembered love and lost friendship, with strong perfs by a name cast. Lingering miscalculations, most of which could be eliminated by trimming, prevent this from equaling the best of director-actress Sylvia Chang’s pics (“Siao Yu,” “Tonight Nobody Goes Home”), but it’s certainly the most personal and ambitious of her various explorations of distaff desire and comradeship. Fest dates look certain; locally, it’s skedded to open in September.
Chang has walked this road before, in her sophomore helming outing, “Passion, ” about two friends who recall their love for the same man. But in the dozen or so years since, she’s developed a more relaxed confidence in her material and actors, with less grandstanding of emotions.
Film takes a reel to settle down, with a shaky rhythm and an unnecessary flashback structure that’s dramatically weak. As a tale of teenage love unspools between shy Shao-rou (elfin-faced Gigi Leung) and introspective, guitar-strumming Ho-chuen (Takeshi Kaneshiro), we realize we’re watching the real-life youth — or maybe an interpretation — of 40-something filmmaker Cheryl (Chang), who wants to make a pic about first love and hires a writer to help her.
Between modern-day inserts of Cheryl and the scripter hashing out the script, we follow a charmingly drawn, but otherwise unremarkable, yarn of doomed love, as Shao-rou and Ho-chuen overnight on an island, her mother (Elaine Jin) freaks out, and Ho-chuen drops her for her own good. Shao-rou is comforted by the sparky Li (Karen Mok), who also seemingly fancied Ho-chuen but now makes a vague lesbian approach to her broken-up best friend.
An hour in, story flashes forward a decade to the mid-’80s. Now an assured, jet-setting fashion designer, Shao-rou bumps into Ho-chuen in Tokyo, where he’s working as a tour guide. Over dinner, the two have a frank and mature talk, and even though he says he’s married, they end up in the sack. Five years later, they’re still corresponding; but then the script starts springing the first of its many twists, including events portrayed from another character’s perspective , and the intertwining of the script and Cheryl’s real life.
Leung, one of Hong Kong’s most charismatic young actresses, is excellent as Shao-rou and manages the transition from klutzy teenager to confidant businesswoman without overdoing either. It’s her performance, along with offbeat looker Mok (good in an atypical serious role) and the hunky Kaneshiro (better in the later scenes), that gives the movie a depth not always apparent in the dialogue. This is one of those films that really does get better and richer as it progresses, to a point where the audience is left hungry for more when it ends.
Trimming by some 10 minutes could turn the movie into a very good one, by deleting the bookending sequences set in a bar as well as some of the earlier inserts of Cheryl and the scripter discussing the characters’ relationships. Somewhat arch, these scenes don’t really work and break the dramatic flow unnecessarily. Tech credits throughout are fine.