When writing about Hong Kong films from the late ’80s and early ’90s it is all too tempting to invoke comparisons with either John Woo or Wong Kar-Wai, the two totems of Hong Kong cinema. This is understandable given the necessarily incestuous nature of commercial film production in Hong Kong during this period when the prolific cinematic output of the territory was generated by a limited talent pool, meaning that actors, directors and other film professionals would often work on several films per year. Consequently, actors like Andy Lau or Chow Yun-Fat might work with the likes of Wong Kar Wai or John Woo (geniuses) and Johnnie To (at the time a hack) or Wong Jing (still a hack) in the same year. For the casual observer, the presence of an actor that they had previously seen in Days of Being Wild and As Tears Go By in films such as Casino Raiders 2 or The Romancing Star III might prompt them to subconsciously lend the latter pair an unwarranted prestige. Perhaps more significantly, the journeyman nature of talented cinematographers/directors such as Andrew Lau meant that the distinction between trash and art became malleable. Lau, for example, worked so frequently and indiscriminately on so many films, giving each a consistent, colourful, wide-angled visual sense that he inadvertently gave highbrow fare a lowbrow sensibility and vice-versa.
Yet having said all of that, My Heart is That Eternal Rose really does fall somewhere between a John Woo style Heroic Bloodshed flick and a visually arresting Wong Kar-Wai romance. Joey Wong plays Lap, the daughter of retired gangster, Uncle Cheung, who now runs a beach bar. Coerced into one last job by a former Triad acquaintance, Uncle Cheung finds himself a marked man when the endeavour, smuggling the Triad’s son from mainland China into Hong Kong, inevitably goes wrong. To save her father, Lap agrees to become evil crime boss Shen’s woman in exchange for his protection. Unfortunately this means jettisoning her proposed marriage to Rick (Kenny Bee), loyal follower of her father and also part of the calamitous smuggling run, and she convinces him to flee to the Philippines, promising that she will follow. The film then jumps forward six years and although Lap has adapted to her life as a Triad’s bird she longs to be reunited with Rick. When Rick returns to Hong Kong, now a gun for hire, he and Lap make arrangements to flee Hong Kong, together this time, along with the help of lowly gangster Chung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Violence and tragedy ensue.
Directed in 1989 by Patrick Tam, My Heart is That Eternal Rose is, on the face of it, pretty firmly fixed within the Heroic Bloodshed tradition, featuring the gunplay and melodrama that one associates with the genre. Yet it feels more Wong Kar-Wai than John Woo. Obviously this can partially be attributed to the presence of Tam as director (he subsequently worked as editor on Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time) and Christopher Doyle as cinematographer. The action unfolds in a sun-drenched, colourful Hong Kong and it has the beautiful, exotic, romantic ambience that one rarely sees in Hong Kong cinema anymore. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of My Heart… is the strange dynamic between Lap, Rick and Chung. Watching Tony Leung, perhaps the biggest movie star in South East Asian cinema, in a supporting role initially seems like a minor curio insofar as a contemporary audience might project greater significance upon his role than the director intended. But as the narrative progresses, the presentation of his seemingly platonic relationship with Joey Wong’s Lap begins to undermine the superficially conventional relationship between Rick and Lap. In one scene in particular, Chung drives Lap to meet Rick at a pier from which they will make their escape. Yet, strangely, Tam elected to the score moments between Chung and Lap with a typically melodramatic piece of Cantopop, embedded diegetically on the soundtrack, thereby heightening the emotional thrust of the scene, but then cuts the music when Lap is reunited with Rick, leaving their meeting a little flat. Although other critics have found the blandness of the relationship between Bee and Wong a weakness of the film (here and here) I would argue that, whether by accident or design, this adds a welcome element of uncertainty to the proceedings by pushing Tony Leung’s benevolent sidekick to centre stage. While the romantic intrigue between the three does not quite match the whimsical, postmodern meanderings of the lovelorn characters in films like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and 2046, it does frequently threaten to shift the dynamic of the love triangle in a manner befitting of a 19th Century novel. All of this lends the piece a subtle unpredictability that adds to the romanticism retrospectively inherited from subsequent, superior Wong Kar-Wai efforts.
Although lacking the awesome action of Woo or the emotional resonance of Wong, My Heart… is an interesting little genre film that is definitely worth a look for anyone with an interest in classic Hong Kong cinema.