Once more with rather less feeling: after “Love in a Fallen City” and “Eighteen Springs,” acclaimed Hong Kong director Ann Hui returns to the work of celebrated 20th century author Eileen Chang with “Love After Love,” a not-at-all-short adaptation of a Chang short story laboring under the English title “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier.” Hui has assembled something of an all-star lineup, with the young leads played by rising actors Sandra Ma (“Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings,” “The Shadow Play”) and Eddie Peng (“Operation Mekong,” “Hidden Man”), the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto on scoring duties and DP Christopher Doyle returning to the scene, if not quite the time period, of his greatest Wong Kar-wai collaboration, “In the Mood For Love.” Despite all this promise, third time sadly represents a marked drop-off in charm: “Love After Love” goes through the motions of classic, rousing melodrama but not the emotions.
Tracking the very gentle wising-up of a naive, wide-eyed ingenue over the course of a few eventful pre-war years, the film begins as Weilong (Ma), a Shanghainese student come to Hong Kong to finish her education away from her stifling father’s influence, arrives at the gates of a palatial villa. She is met by two pert housemaids Didi (Karlina Zhang) and Ni’er (Ning Chang), but it belongs to Madame Liang (Faye Yu), her father’s sister who was excommunicated from the family when she chose to become the mistress of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman rather than marry the man her family chose for her. Having inherited all his wealth, she lives a decadent life of supremely well-dressed un-respectability, as indicated when we’re introduced to her rocking a black satin number and waist-length veil as she’s driven home from an assignation in a shiny convertible by much younger playboy George Chiao (Peng).
Madame Liang is not exactly a warm, motherly figure, and there’s something discomfiting in the way her older friend “Uncle” Situ (Fan Wei) looks at Weilong. But half scandalized and half seduced by this new lifestyle, Weilong moves in and tries to adapt herself to her worldly aunt’s approval. “We do things the British way here,” announces Madame Liang with some pride. Her “set,” is indeed a variegated bunch, including George and his minxish sister Kitty (a nice, if underserved turn from Isabella Leong), their rich, disapproving father Sir Cheng (Paul Chun), along with Uncle Situ and a wider circle of British Army officers, missionaries, glamor girls and other members of the champagne-quaffing, polyglot Hong Kong elite.
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It does not take long for Weilong to ditch her plain overdress for the silk cheongsams and floaty Western-style party gowns that now hang in her closet. When she attracts a handsome young medical-student beau, Mme Liang makes moves on him immediately and, with George starting to flirt in earnest with the impressionable Weilong, there’s an enjoyable sort of “Dangerous Liaisons” vibe initially. Certainly her aunt’s chastisement when Weilong reacts badly to Uncle Situ snapping a jeweled bracelet round her wrist like a handcuff, suggests Mme Liang is somehow mentoring her in the fine arts of courtesanship.
But Mme Liang, a character made up of two parts side-eye and one part cigarette smoke, is no Marquise de Merteuil, and while she seems to constantly be plotting something devious, not a lot ever comes of it — she is a Machievellian schemer without a scheme. Instead of the lathery, bed-hopping drama initially promised, the vast majority of the film is taken up with blank-slate Weilong’s increasing passion for the feckless, promiscuous George and her attempts to get him to put a ring on it.
This not-terribly-involving love story between two characters for whom it’s difficult to give a hoot, unfolds against a curiously texture-free backdrop, given the fascinating milieu of 1930s Hong Kong. It is possible, as we’re reminded by the prominent “Dragon Seal” of Chinese censorship approval affixed to the film’s titles, that sensitivities around Hong Kong’s status necessitated some selective editing, yet the draggy 140-minute run time, if anything, suggests that too much was left in, rather than a great deal taken out.
It is largely left to the craft departments to give the film what dynamism it has. Doyle’s photography delights in the richness of the palette and is effusive in its love for the pearly flawless skin of uniformly attractive cast. And Sakamoto’s music, while not particularly memorable, pleasantly embellishes the romance with light piano motifs. But tying for MVP, it’s probably costumier Emi Wada (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) and production designer Zhao Hai. The outfits are glorious. Indeedm it’s often by Weilong’s donning of a neat beret or the shimmer of her form-fitting dress that we glean character information that is not really communicated elsewhere.
And the interiors, especially of Mme Liang’s mansion, are similarly exquisitely dressed. In these richly furnished parlors, tricked out with peacock feather drapes and ornate trinketry, and in the lavish but slavishly Western-pandering dinner and garden parties, the film comes closest to emulating the arch, Austen-esque social observations of Chang’s original story, which contains aperçus like: “The English come from so far to see China — one has to give them something of China to see. But this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.” Change “very” to “intermittently” in that last phrase and you have a fairly good summation of “Love After Love.”