A romantic comedy produced for the lucrative Mandarin market, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's Don't Go Breaking My Heart is pure formula—quirky white-collar girl wooed by contrasting lovers—given the étude treatment: rudimentary romantic themes, taken at face value, form the basis for a complicated technical exercise. Tricks with mirrored surfaces, depth-of-field, cutaway sets and wide-angle lenses abound, all synced up to Xavier Jamaux's Legrand-esque makeout music. But to what ends? To and Wai aren't giving story or structure the runaround in favor of "style;" rather, they take this hoary premise and build on and out of it. Simple ideas, sufficiently overthought, become postmodernist architecture: crisp lines of character, plot and internal logic accented with blunt neoclassical flourishes. Where those lines lead, though, is a different matter.
Investment firm employee Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan), newly single, spends her evenings hanging out with an alcoholic architect (Daniel Wu) while pining for the banker whose high-rise office is visible from hers (Louis Koo). Cue the financial crisis of 2008, a title card reading "three years later," and both men re-entering her life reconfigured—Wu sober, clean-shaven, and occupying Koo's old office; Koo now Gao's boss, too close and therefore no longer the object of her affection. It's an old trope that neither To nor Wai have any trouble embracing: we want what we can't quite have, a little bit of inattainability breeds possibility, etc. Reduced to its essence, Gao's double romance is little more than an extended, indifferent shopping trip—and, in fact, her relationship with Koo, who attempts to charm her with some conspicuous consumption, involves a lot of non-metaphorical shopping. The movie sets up Wu as Mr. Right early on, but then it goes to great lengths to redeem him in the second half, meaning that the central choice between two men—which, in old Hollywood style, comes in the last minute of the film—is as arbitrary as picking between two pairs of shoes that look and fit equally well. Which is to say that, with two possible correct choices, Gao's decision is irrelevant. The movie spends almost two hours rendering its own ending obsolete, and then dispatches it as quickly as possible. It's either a flaw of design or a built-in killswitch.
As a storyteller, Wai works largely in terms of images and juxtapositions. The scripts he's worked on—whether alone or in collaboration (on Don't Go Breaking My Heart, Wai has two co-writers: Milkyway Image mainstay Yau Nai-Hoi and intriguingly-named newcomer Jevons Au Man-Kit)—are flurries of complex conceits and flights of fancy disguised as character quirks: the muscled-bound ex-monk with supernatural powers who gets involved in both a mystery and a romance in Running on Karma (a potpourri premise if there ever was one); the French assassin-turned-restaurateur adrift in Macao of Vengeance; fictional characters writing fictionalized versions of themselves in Written By. These are ideas and structures first, and stories second; plot is just what ends up connecting the dots. In Don't Go Breaking My Heart, a basic "girls chooses between two guys" premise—filled out with a bunch of situational curlicues to justify the running time—conveniently links a flirtation conducted from facing office windows, a heart-shaped shadow cast by a ring, competing marriage proposals, and a character who dresses like a vagrant but lives in a swanky pad.
As a director, To has a penchant for silent-movie literalness; just look at The Bare-footed Kid, which opens with a shot of bare feet, and then later introduces Maggie Cheung's character with a shot of her brocaded shoes. Keepsakes become characters, sets become microcosms and metaphors become motifs. The ubiquitous glass walls become frames, mirrors and finally start looking more than a little like display cases in which the characters live; everybody gets their own vitrine. And—thanks to the script's compulsive doubling of characters and situations—their own twin.
Wai brings the imagination, weird and sometimes a little overreaching, as well as the comic color; To brings the know-how, precise and consistent, plus his usual retinue of company players (Lam Suet, usually cast a second-banana gangster, makes a surprisingly good office manager) and aesthetic tics. Every meet-cute, coincidence, and near-miss is geometrically-framed and intercut to a point where any given situation and its two (and it's always inevitably two; from the would-be suitors to the glut of rhyming scenes, everything in Don't Go Breaking My Heart comes in twos) possible outcomes are more or less diagrammed; pivotal scenes resemble flowcharts.
A lot of dramas try to turn private space into something palpable and public—they draw out, heighten, explode the specific inner workings of a small set of characters. Romances aim for the reverse—they transform public space into private property (this movie one-ups this when Wu builds a skyscraper shaped like Gao's shadow—a massive doppelganger CGI'ed into the Hong Kong skyline). Like To's Sparrow, Don't Go Breaking My Heart a movie where prospective lovers constantly spy on one another; it seems like every other cut brings a a point-of-view or a reaction shot. But everyone else is observing, too; the big turning points—the fistfight between the suitors, the marriage proposals—come with a chorus on onlookers. Smartphones play a role analogous to Jimmy Stewart's binoculars and camera in Rear Window—and because in this film, even Hitchcock references must come in twos, a blonde at Gao's multi-lingual office sports a Kim Novak swirl in her hair (like the Cherbourg umbrellas in Sparrow and Vengeance, To likes his mid-century references blindingly obvious).
And yet, in contrast to Sparrow—a movie where observation becomes fascination, and doesn't just function as time-wasting or sizing-up—Don't Go Breaking My Heart never even attempts to make a strong case for why the characters begin to be attracted to one another aside from boredom and proximity. Gao develops a crush on Koo not because she knows much about him, but because he's the handsome guy across the street. Romance becomes, literally, window-shopping, each man trying to out-cute the other for Gao's attention; public space becomes privatized, not private.
Unlike Ferrara's scuzzball / oddball New York or Mann's existentialist Chicago, To's Hong Kong is a remarkably mutable city: in Fulltime Killer, it's a playground for weirdos; in Election, a prison where the inmates have taken over; in Breaking News, a complicated game one is compelled to play; in Story of My Son, an extreme high and an extreme low with no clear midpoint. Don't Go Breaking My Heart envisions it as a late-capitalist wonderland where every office building, chain store and lunch-break park offers dovetailing romantic possibilities. Anything approaching physical affection gets comically deflated in favor of the intricate mechanics of choice (To's usual system—"character is plot, and a character is the sum of his or her decisions"—gets upended in favor of "decision is plot, characters are what keeps the plot moving"). Gao takes Koo home with her, but instead of a sex scene, this leads to a complicated shot / reverse-shot gag sequence in which Gao watches Koo as he—having told her that he's going to run to the convenience store to get a condom—instead dashes to his car to rifle through a glove compartment full of Durexes.
If the film occasionally resembles Play Time (and it does, especially in the extensive office-window sequences), it should be pointed out that To & Wai aren't one half as ambivalent about glass and money as Tati was. Here, the existence two nearly-identical coffee shops on opposite ends of town isn't some gag about the illusion of choice, but—as a character must pick between two women he's made dates with in the same circumstances and at the same time—a convenient framework to spell out a character's decision-making. But in most cases—ending included—the resulting decision gets short shrift. Here, in a world built around a constant influx of choice and competition, what ends up chosen no longer matters.