Hollywood Movie

‘A Tale of Three Cities’ (‘San Cheng Ji’): Film Review

Published on : Aug 28 , 2015

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A man squashed by a collapsed clock tower, a corpse covered by ticking watches: these two images spells out very loudly the dominant theme running through the latest film by Hong Kong filmmaking duo Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. Revolving around a couple’s relationship in wartorn China of the 1930s and 1940s, A Tale of Three Cities offers an epic period drama about individuals overwhelmed by the times, their trajectories shaped by rapidly changing circumstances beyond their control.

Just like the man who perished under that fallen clock, however, Cheung and Law have floundered under the heavy weight of history. While falling short of crafting an engaging decade-hopping narrative, their traditionalist and overtly serious approach is perhaps at odds with the demands of an increasingly youth-dominated and thrill-seeking market in mainland China. A Tale of Three Cities certainly unfolds with flaws aplenty — distracting subplots, protracted storytelling, forced coincidences and a curious lack of chemistry between the two leads — but it certainly deserves more than the disappointingly low box-office returns it garnered upon its release in China on Aug. 27.

Having written a lot of the real-life Chans’ shadowy activities out of the picture, Cheung and Law have instead imposed some of these transgressions onto the couples’ fictional buddies. “Big Sister” Qiu (Qin Hailu, Red Amnesia) is the childhood friend who lands Yuerong jobs at gambling dens, while Daolong bonds with Hua (Jing Boran, Monster Hunt), a young man whose nerdy, bespectacled veneer conceals a secret double life. Though they do serve a purpose, these two characters’ presence and subsequent blooming romance divert audiences from the main attraction of the supposedly all-encompassing epic romance of the two leads.

Therein lies the main problem of A Tale of Three Cities. Throughout their three-decade career, Cheung and Law have proved themselves at their best when revealing universal themes — mostly revolving around geographical or psychological dislocation — with small-scale, intimate relationship dramas. As in The Soong Sisters, the pair flounder here as they try to string together a multistrand storyline weaved through long stretches of space and time. Here, they offer overwrought drama without the subtlety and authentic human empathy that drives their masterful 1980s classics Illegal Immigrant, An Autumn’s Tale or Eight Taels of Gold. More affected than affecting, A Tale of Three Cities offers neither the best nor the worst of times; instead, it’s a surprisingly middling if mildly entertaining affair conjured out of one extraordinary real story.

Production companies: Film Workshop, Magic Dream Production in a Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers International, Edko Films, Han Hai Information Technology, Omnijoi Media, Heyi Pictures presentation
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Tang Wei, Qin Hailu, Jing Boran
Director: Mabel Cheung
Screenwriter: Mabel Cheung, Alex Law
Producers: Alex Law, Nansun Shi, Zhang Dajun, James Tsim, Shan Tam
Executive producers: Wang Zhonglei, Wang Zhongjun, Bill Kong, Zhang Tao, Hong Tao, Zhui Huilong
Director of photography: Wang Yu
Production designer: Tim Yip
Costume designer: William Fung
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung, Wong Hoi
Music: Henry Lai
International Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, IM Global

In Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese and English

No ratings, 138 minutes

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