The Image Trap: Johnnie To's "Romancing in Thin Air"

On one of the unsung, under-seen, great films of 2012—a formalist exploration of the image-swapping between reality & cinema.
Adam Cook

Now that the year has come to an end, and all the top tens have come out of the woodwork, certain films continue to fly under the radar, either due to lack of distribution or a general lack of interest—even with established auteurs like Johnnie To. As with his romantic-comedy (see: not an action film) Don’t Go Breaking My Heart last year, Romancing in Thin Air has dodged critical appreciation, having avoided major festivals, and in the little press it has received, has sometimes been dismissed as a slight effort outside of To’s wheelhouse (i.e. gangster & crime pictures). However, To’s weaving in and out of his action staples and “romantic” comedy/dramas (for the record, all of his films are romantic) is more akin to Howard Hawks alternating between his westerns, crime films, and melodramas—from The Big Sleep to Red River to His Girl Friday is not so unlike going from Breaking News to Election to these films.

The same poetic eye guides all of To’s films, regardless of their genre, and his recent romantic efforts, each made in collaboration with writer/filmmaker Wai Ka-Fai, have brought out some unique qualities from the director while clarifying and emphasizing others. (Though earlier attempts at "New Years" films and/or comic melodramas may be more in line with To's own claim that the primary purpose of making these films is to ultimately fund his other ones, but never trust a director's word on his own work.) The undervaluing of these films could simply be attributed to their lack of violence—or more specifically their lack of masculinity—but they deserve just as much attention. Romancing in Thin Air is memorable for its balancing of a commercial surface with the sort of dark side that used to beg to be discovered in the work of classical Hollywood greats like Douglas Sirk.

Above: Window shopping in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

As in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, To presents another love triangle corrupted by image. In that film, the two male suitors vying for the protagonist’s affection compete and commodify themselves as products as if in storefront windows, with one of them ultimately winning her heart in a series of one-upmanship that rendered any sincerity in the choice between the two men obsolete. With Romancing in Thin Air, it is the image of celebrity that dictates the “romancing.” Sue (Sammi Cheng) drives back from a trip to the city to her “Deep Woods Hotel” in the Yunnan Mountains only to find that she has accidentally brought back some cargo in the back of her truck: Michael Lau (Louis Koo), a famous movie star and recording artist in the middle of a serious drinking binge after being left at the alter by a starlet. The reserved Sue shows little interest in Lau, but sees to nursing him back to health; not only is Lau in bad shape from the alcohol abuse, but also from the high altitude of the hotel. Lau revels in this middle-of-nowhere retreat and begins to fall for Sue, only to later discover she’s a longtime member of his fan club. Pretty soon they’re reenacting scenes from his films, chasing the sunset together on a motorcycle, but another revelatory discovery comes soon after. Sue’s missing lover, Tian, who disappeared seven years prior in the surrounding forest—shot with foreboding mysteriousness by To—won her heart by conforming to the image of her idol. In a series of flashbacks, we see the origin of their romance, in which Tian recognizes Sue’s obsession with Lau, and essentially tries to become him, learning a song of his on the piano, and learning to ride a motorcycle so they can chase the sunset (which they do, putting a creepy spin on the earlier seemingly-sweet moment between Sue and Lau).

To plays this entirely straight however, without highlighting the dark undertones of this partly post-mortem love triangle. Sue loves and idolizes the on-screen image of Michael Lau, Tian tries to become this fantasy image and Sue falls in love with him, he disappears, and the real Michael Lau tries to take his place, but Sue still loves Tian, but as Lau once again begins to fulfill the same fantasy image that Tian did, Sue then falls for him. Throughout these various melodramatic stages, To allows us the pleasures and emotions that come with them—actually, he masterfully orchestrates them with his signature wide angle compositions. Further evoking a classical Hollywood dynamic, he is able to toe (pun unintended) the line between subversion and commercialism, even wrapping the film in an ending that could be taken as either happy or tragic, not unlike Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.

Towards the end, Lau directs a film (also titled Romancing in Thin Air, though in the original Chinese, To's film is titled as a "sequel" to Lau's film-within-a-film, literally translated as High Altitude of Love II) that essentially tells the exact same story but with Sue’s lover returning to her alive. In a series of striking images, with Sue foregrounded in front of a cinema screen playing Lau’s movie, the thin barriers between reality, fiction, and between the indistinguishable images of Tian, Lau, and the fake lover portrayed on screen disappear: romancing into thin air. It could be said that the triangle expands to a four-way here, as Sue gets over Tian, and finally truly falls for Lau only when the fake Tian comes to life in the movie—a new male entity, another fantasy image on top of a fantasy image. Ultimately, the characters are superseded by the images they project on one another, until their specific identities become meaningless. To shows us a world ruled by the sentimental idealism of the movies Lau stars in and provides an ending according to their rules, but one wherein the characters remain trapped in fictional visions of romance. They live in a reality blurred by the exchange of images between life and movies.

Above: The collapse of the barrier between cinema image and reality.

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