Love after Love
Directed by Ann Hui. China. 2020. 140 mins. # TIFF
Love after Love is a feast for the eyes rendering the extravagance of Hong Kong’s high society around 1940. Most of the story takes place in a British mansion of colonial style combined with a Chinese imperial aesthetic, located on the hillside, an area of privilege and exclusivity that has continued since the colonial days. It’s Madam Liang (Faye Yu)’s territory, a heritage from her late husband whom she married as a concubine despite her family’s opposition. Here like everyone else, she navigates social relationships within circles of politicians, celebrities, and clerics with careful calculation, while finding physical pleasure and temporary romance one after another. She is aging but is still attractive, successfully stretching her best years not only through a use of impeccable makeup and fine dresses, but more importantly through the astuteness and egoism, among other traits, that are part of her personality. When her niece Weilong (Sandra Ma), from the family in Shanghai that had cut ties with her years ago, shows up asking for shelter, Madam Liang takes the young and naive girl in. She sees her as a helpful means to maintain her own position in the social arena. The audience is introduced to this exquisite and enclosed world together with Weilong, witnessing how she gradually gives up her moral codes and falls for the luxurious lifestyle and the illusional romance with George Chiao (Eddie Peng) until eventually becoming part of the social scheme herself.
The visual richness, however, doesn’t guarantee a sophisticated articulation of the story. The film is centered around Weilong’s pursuit of love and Madam Liang’s role in it which is at times a mentor, a competitor, a protector, and a deceiver. The dynamics between them and those around them is highlighted to such an extent that the social background, which plays a crucial part shaping the behavior of each character, is largely toned down. Different layers of hierarchies (occupational, geographical,intra-familial, etc.) are touched upon without in-depth discussion as details from the original novella are removed, notably the nuns as social butterflies, and the merchant Situ Xie (Fan Wei, another delight to watch) from the mainland (a costal city named Shantou near Hong Kong) is another exception in Madam Liang’s social circle due to her predilection for socializing with “Hong Kong’s local officials and gentry class”. Similarly omitted is the city’s chaotic situation on the edge of falling before the war bursts out, when China and the rest of world had been suffering for years. The film limits itself to the bubble of the privileged class, focusing on the love story while leaving out the indifference of the high society towards the war which is around the corner and the extreme contrast between the singing and dancing of the rich and the dying poor in the streets. Against the backdrop of the time, Weilong’s desperation is not only the desperation of love, but also the desperation of wanting to find a position (a place, a connection) for herself amid such turbulent times. And she is not alone. Eileen Chang’s novella skillfully situates the individual’s fate in the larger picture of the society and the time, which is unfortunately absent from the film.
Approved by the dragon seal and major Chinese producers, the film allows fragments of English, Portuguese and French to exist, while allowing mandarin to eliminate the possibilities of Cantonese, Shanghai dialect and other regional dialects. This regret is not just about language, but also about a simplified reality of hybrid social conventions, values, aesthetics, that have been defining Hong Kong for centuries, which the cast also fails to represent. The profound sophistication of the city becomes too clean and clear-cut, in a way that echoes what it experienced in recent years. Madam Liang’s flashbacks in grey tones show facets of her life in the feudal family and suggest how much the ghost of feudalism is still affecting her, just as she herself becomes the ghost that Weilong will never be able to get rid of. Ultimately, the film is haunted by structural and ideological ghosts as well, showing little hope of a post-colonial narrative.