15 November 2014

On Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2

Johnnie To's latest film, Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 opened in many major U.S. markets yesterday. It was a surprise. So is the film. 

I can't think of a sequel that interrogates and deconstructs the fundamental elements that made its predecessor so successful like Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 does. It's as if Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, et al. felt like charlatans after the first film's success. I can picture the reviews and box office forcing them into asking why the first film works, deciding that it shouldn't, then showing us why it doesn't. This sequel goes to absurd lengths to examine the particulars of the first film and it is not reflected well. This makes the prospect of revisiting the first film even more tantalizing as we can use the tools given to us by the filmmakers to view the original in a wholly different light. 

The first film began with a generic love triangle template and over the course of two hours piled on reversals and complications until it reached a climax of dizzying proportions. Despite that film's commitment to teasing every last ounce of suspense out of which suitor Gao Yuanyuan's character Cheng Zixin would choose, the film resolved itself with the safer conclusion. This makes sense for a narrative that is beholden to its romantic comedy traditions. The sequel on the other hand begins with more absurdity than the first ended with and ratchets up the looniness and the loneliness in equal measure and ends up in truly uncharted territory.

Like the Astaire and Rogers films released during the Great Depression, the successful capitalistic society depicted onscreen in the Don't Go Breaking My Heart films is an illusion. It's a fantasy world for film audiences where we can live vicariously in mansions and on yachts, freely laughing along at the difficulties of parallel parking a Ferrari. These are pretty people living lavish lives and yet none of them are the slightest bit happy. The basic fundamental human desire to be offered a choice not only cripples the protagonists but shows them all to be, for lack of a better term, idiots. (As usual, DEVO said it best.) That these indecisive people are in charge of huge financial institutions, despite the fact that when forced to actually call the shots they fail spectacularly is one of the new film's sickest jokes.

While the first film falls well within the genre of romantic comedies and its traditions, this bitter sequel does not. It's certainly funny, in fact more hilarious than the original, but the film ends on a sour note that haunts the memory of the preceding laughs. And this is not even close to being romantic. (My colleague Sean pointed out that this is much more of a screwball comedy, with its conceit of mistaken identity, than a romantic comedy.) All of the cutesy gestures that Shen-ren does in the first film are recreated here but instead of being clever and charming they are routinely exposed as hollow, shameless, and desperate. Even his scaling of the building (built in Zixin's image!) at the film's end is pathetic. Although the film resolves itself by working out in Shen-ren's favor there is no feeling of triumph or joy. It's a bitter pill to swallow.

It is revealed at one point that Shen-ren's playboy lifestyle only masks his continued infatuation with Zixin. The only way he can sleep at night is by climbing through the window of her old apartment, which he has since rented, where he watches a loop of her dance routine that he filmed in the first movie. Is that not the most profoundly depressing thing you've ever heard? It's even more sad if one sees it as an analog for us filmgoers, who retreat to our darkened rooms and projected images, finding solace in the past which we can only rewrite in our dreams. Romantic comedies like the original Don't Go Breaking My Heart can be a crutch that keeps us from finding tangible, tactical happiness in the real world.

The idea of reverse thinking is explicitly part of the text of the sequel, literalized in the form of an octopus who is smart enough to pick one of two outcomes but is always wrong. The star of the new film, Yang Yang-Yang (played by Miriam Yeung, another sign of the boundary pushing of this film, the hero is a character not in the first movie at all!) embraces the octopus with almost religious zeal. This championing of contradiction serves as a clever way of handwaving the reason that Yang decides to stay with Louis Koo's Shen-ren despite overwhelming evidence that this is quite literally, the worst idea in the world. And if anyone thinks that a movie that explicitly tells us that everything is a mistake will give us a happy ending, they're dead wrong. The conclusion of this film is as committed as everything that went before it. It is unambiguous on where it lands.

This ending is problematic only insofar as giving us what we want. For a film this bold to pivot in its final moments to a place of satisfaction would be a cop-out. The argument has been made that this sequel almost begs for a third film in the saga and I won't lie, I would love to see how To approaches that hypothetical feature. Does he expose this film's indictments as their own kind of lie? Does he painstakingly piece back together the breezy joys of the first film, showing us why the old tropes still work? I'd love to see that but I would also be happy if Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 is the final chapter. In its way it brings the narrative -- at least of one almost abandoned character -- full circle.

And it breaks your heart.

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