Two handsome Hong Kong men fight over the same mainland Chinese lass in the polished romantic comedy “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” from veteran helmer Johnnie To and scribe-producer Wai Ka-fai. Except for its weak denouement, this fantasy-world take on romantic rivalry is tightly plotted and frequently funny, with suave lead perfs and glossy production design and lensing further completing the package. Very different in tone from the duo’s hard-boiled action films (“Mad Detective,” “Vengeance”), this mainstream, mostly Mandarin-language pic is squarely aimed at mainland auds and will do midrange biz in the region, but won’t travel much elsewhere.
Pic is prolific To’s first directorial outing since 2009’s “Vengeance,” which was also written and produced by Milkyway Image partner Wai. Though To has a much higher profile than Wai in the West, the partners are considered major filmmakers locally, as a duo as well as separately. Wai was named Filmmaker in Focus at this year’s Hong Kong fest, which opened with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
Pic opens in 2008, with pretty financial analyst Zixin (mainland actress Gao Yuanyuan) meeting her ex-b.f., Owen (Terence Yin), on a bus. Owen’s new g.f. (Selena Li) goes nuts when she sees the pair talking, and when Zixin hurriedly gets off the bus, she’s barely saved from an oncoming car by a drunken tramp, Fang Qihong (Daniel Wu). A disillusioned former architect behind his unkempt appearance, Fang helps Zixin get rid of all of Owen’s stuff, including a pet frog that quickly becomes Fang’s sounding board and friend.
From her desk at work, Zixin has a view of the office of the handsome CEO of another financial firm, Cheung Shen-ran (Louis Koo). In one of the pic’s smartest visual ideas, the two start flirting with each other from behind the windows of their respective offices, using their hands, bodies and colored Post-Its to communicate. Romantic and funny complications ensue when an impossibly busty secretary (Larysa Bakurova) one floor down from Zixin thinks the hunk is communicating with her instead.
Pic ties its storylines neatly together at a series of dates scheduled for the same evening, which sheds some light on the immutable character traits of Cheung, a charming cad, and Fang, a hopeless romantic. After examining the fallout of this night, pic jumps to the present, where the two men vie for her affections.
Though the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy is part of the plot, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is strictly set in a fantasy world where an architect can decide to become an alcoholic vagrant but still keep a neat apartment, and where financial/romantic ruin or success can come at the flick of a switch, whenever the plot requires it. Still, in typical Wai fashion, the story is high-concept, solidly structured and often amusing — if never uproarious — with several leitmotifs recurring throughout.
Only letdowns are Zixin’s sketchily introduced family from Suzhou (Yan Jingtao, Liu Yihong), who are given nary a thing to do, despite the fact that the pic is clearly aimed at the more lucrative mainland market rather than Hong Kong, and the finale in which Zixin chooses her man, which lacks any motivation and thus feels arbitrary.
This is Wu’s first collaboration with To, though he’s worked several times with co-star Koo (a longtime To collaborator), including on the 2010 drama “Triple Tap,” in which they also played rivals; their hostile chemistry convinces here. Gao (“City of Life and Death”) is appropriately fizzy, even if her undecided Zixin is the least well-drawn of the leads.
Tech package, including Cheng Siu-keung’s gliding widescreen cinematography, is solid.