Early last year, the Mainland Communist government finally lifted its strict censorship of this ostensibly nonpolitical award-winning romantic vehicle for Maggie Cheung. The prohibition never really made sense, so it was often chalked up to Hong Kong-Mainland differences. However, it is easy to suspect the characters’ sentimental affection for Taiwanese Mandarin singer Teresa Teng, who was quite outspoken in her support for the Tiananmen Square democracy protestors, had a direct bearing on the decision. As usual, the government denied its people something good. Without question, Maggie Cheung gives a career-defining performance in Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (trailer here), which screens as part of the Metrograph’s retrospective series Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.
Li Xiao-jun has come to Hong Kong from the northern provinces to earn money, so he can marry his hometown sweetheart. However, in 1986, the go-go mega-city is a hard place for a guileless Mandarin speaker. It seems a bit easier for Li Qiao, a brash, Cantonese fluent scammer from Guangzhou. Yet, life seems to be in the habit of disappointing her. Initially, she assumes she will just make a quick buck off the rube, referring him to an English tutorial school for a commission, but somehow he sticks in her life.
They start out as almost frienemies, but soon evolve into friends with benefits, which causes the engaged Xiao-jun considerable guilt (and Li Qiao as well). When Li’s intended finally joins him, Li Qiao duly befriends her. Of course, fate, timing, and chaos involving her aging Triad sugar daddy constantly conspire to keep the almost lovers separated.
You just haven’t seen bittersweet until you have seen Comrades (a term used with some irony). The pseudo-couple experiences dozens of near-misses, but Ivy Ho’s elegant screenplay never feels contrived. Frankly, that really is how the world works when you are a marginalized economic migrant. Yet, there is always something admirable about the Lis and their friends, because they are so doggedly working to better their lives.
If you have ever considered Cheung an icy screen presence, this is also the film to melt your preconceptions. She just basically rips viewers hearts out as the exponentially-more-vulnerable-than-she-lets-on Li Xiao. The chemistry she shares with Leon Lai (as Xiao-jun) is absolutely devastating. Frankly, the same can be said of her rapport with Eric Tsang as the mobbed-up Pao Au-yeung, which is another reason why the film packs such a sustained emotional wallop. For comic relief that naturally takes a melancholy turn, noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle (working solely in front of the camera) steals several scenes as Jeremy, the foul-mouthed English teacher.