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TIFF 2014. Dialogues: Johnnie To's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2"

At Toronto, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman discuss the Hong Kong auteur's sequel to his great 2011 romantic comedy.

From the Toronto International Film Festival, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman continue our series of festival dialogues. Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 had its world premiere in TIFF's Special Presentations section.

ADAM COOK: Here we are again, talking To. It's frustrating how many times I've encountered a dismissive attitude towards Johnnie To's romantic comedies. I realize even the director himself disassociates from them, but, and especially with his most recent works, the rom-coms have been as formally intricate and as impressively crafted as his more revered crime films. As everyone was praising Drug War, it was Romancing in Thin Air that stood out for me. Before that there was Don't Go Breaking My Heart (written on here by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), an impossibly entertaining love triangle in the big city movie, that while over the top and silly, had some of To's most impressive images—that of the film's lovers wooing each other through windows in adjacent buildings. The film managed to capture, quite seriously, the dynamics of romance in an ultra-capitalist setting. In the end, the woman made her choice, but things are up in the air yet again in the sequel, which also introduces two new characters into the mix to make things even more (delightfully) confusing. This one has a different feel from its predecessor, it's shot digitally (a first for To) and not as stunning to look at, it's not quite as tight, but it's more emotionally involving, and maybe a bit darker (I'm tempted to spoil the last shot and its rather ruthless implications). You and I were able to enjoy this film side-by-side, and I don't think I've had more fun at the festival—though I suspect your praise for the film may be more measured than mine... What works for you and what doesn't in To's comedies, and this one specifically (and of course let's not neglect Wai Ka-fai!)?

DANIEL KASMAN: That's a good question and one I didn't expect. I hesitate on sounding so much like "a formalist," but for me To's comedies allow for a more pure appreciation of his style: the widescreen use of on and off-screen space, set-pieces of motion and timing, and structuralist riffing on doubling and tripling in plot, characters, and imagery. Wai Ka-fai I find genuinely funnier as a director, more crazy and manic, and certainly elements in Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 bare Wai's mark: the psychic octopus, as Fernando pointed out, which is able to predict losers (but not winners, an important detail in this film!), the climatic skyscraper building which is performed gruntingly while singing. I think it's quite clear as in many other films that while To's "masculine" films can be culturally appealing outside of a Chinese audience, his sense of "what is funny" and "what is romantic" are more closely tied to his home audiences and therefore are harder to relate to for a foreign critic. This may be why I get so much pleasure from this film formally but not particularly emotionally—though I of course would strongly assert that form can be emotional and that here it sometimes is—but the latter problem for me is actually more tied to the milieu To insists on working with for many of his rom-coms: the bratty rich of Hong Kong. Drinking a great glass of red wine, where to park one's Ferrari, the ubiquitous availability of Johnny Walker Platinum, and housing and office real estate have as much importance in this filmworld as who loves who and ends up with whom; what with all the product placement, this film is as much a gross consumer lifestyle film as any of Michael Bay's cinema. But the film also contextualizes some of this bland glamour (and the paper-thin feelings that go with them) with a latent and pervasive critique of these people's lives and jobs; this isn't Life without Principle but it is working smartly against its own luxuriousness at times. Perhaps you'd like to talk more about that?

COOK: Wai's stamp is all over this one. I agree he is funnier and more manic of the pair, but occasionally I felt as though this film was perhaps too subservient to Wai's whimsy, in contrast with the first one. It may be worth noting, as Scott Foundas did in his review, that Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 also features a new cinematographer. Yes, it is a grossly capitalist film, and there are moments that feel as though the film lack a conscience, and yet, by the end of the film, one really has a sense of the lifestyle portrayed in the film—not a realist one of course, but a sort of ecstatic vision of Hong Kong high roller life. To's reflexivity isn't so pronounced in terms of presenting some sort of indictment of the privileged class (that he is distinctly a part of), it is a film that feels of itself (as did Pain & Gain, I suppose, to bring in Bay), but what he does show is revealing. As the characters shuffle through partners, jockey for position, make grand gestures to secure their loves (who they will almost undoubtedly move on from inevitably), they hustle, both in love and in the financial world. One really nice detail in this film is in how the character of Yang Yang Yang (Miriam Yeung) peers through the window not just to flirt with Louis Koo's Shen-Ran, but also to observe how his office is playing the stock market, in both instances ready to make a move at any moment to gain an advantage. The ups and downs of the stock exchange play a big role in the movie. It's a background element, but a prominent one. Characters check their phones/tablets/computers to monitor the market, anticipating the next moment to buy or sell. It's not as integral as in Life Without Principle of course, but it figures heavily in defining how these people's lives operate: in constant flux. The instability of the market is synonymous with the instability of their love lives. Up/down/buy/sell/trade, these characters only know one way to live, plagued by a perpetual buyer's remorse. It's not a foregrounded emotion, but personally I find them quite sad and touching to observe. As superficial as they are, they're trapped in this high pressure environment, and they spend all their time looking at each other without ever seeing.

KASMAN: That's an interesting read, though I saw it differently: the market-and-consumerism focus of all the characters is part and parcel with how they love and how they treat their love lives. The women and men are objects to aspire to owning, to capture and consume; once gotten, the magic is gone and they move on either to something new or to the object they now no longer have. It's not love that is fickle, in this film, but how these playboys and playgirls of the stock market view love. The grand romantic gestures are all external, physical ways of impressing people, rather than tender, human expressions. The players are callous and hardened and can only be impressed this way.  To's juggling of these gestures and darting looks of desire and desire thwarted reaches its climax mid-film with an orchestration of simultaneous action, knowing and unknowing participants, distance viewpoints and manic phone calls, with a scene where Yang Yang heads over from her skyscraper to the one across the street to bring Shen-Ran a birthday cake, while Shen-Ran's love object from the previous film, Zixin, watches. What she see is Shen-Ran try to juggling 6 (!) different women he's sleeping with arrive at the same time, and the ensuring insanity of making sure they don't see each other or Yang Yang Yang. (All the while Lam Suet festooned with pink accessories gesticulates wildly in the background!) This is the energy which drives these people: the precariousness of the high roller lifestyle, the tightrope walk between fantasy indulgence and the limitations of space and time in the real world.

COOK: No, that's it exactly! It's a film of surfaces about purely surface-level living and loving. It's all about presentation, the performativity of romancing. Love isn't even an issue, there's almost a complete absence of any illusion of love. And this is how these characters sincerely proceed, it's the only way they know how to engage with the world. It really feels of a thematic trilogy if we can include Romancing in Thin Air. There's even some similar visual moments here. Remember the stunning sequence in that film in which the protagonist goes to the cinema to see the story of her dead lover brought to life? The way To shot her foregrounded in front of the cinema screen as if she were part of the image, or the image part of her? Here, Yang Yang Yang stumbles upon a drunk, sleeping Louis Koo, with footage (that he shot in the first film on his cell phone) projected on his empty apartment wall of Zixin dancing in her office at night across the street. We see Yang Yang Yang foregrounded in a similar way in front of this image, layers of fantasy and reality overlapping ambiguously. There's a similar composition in the new film, but with the windows of the office as the background—and there's really no difference, not in this world, between projected/presented images and the (artificial) reality that surrounds the characters. For them, I see no way of escape, although Qihong (Daniel Wu), the Mainland Chinese love interest Zixin chose over Shen-Ran in the first film, kind of comes full circle with where we first found him in that movie; maybe he can break out, but I'm not so optimistic about his future. There is one genuine character is this film though, but I'm not sure you'll agree: Paul (Vic Chou), Zixin's brother, who falls for Yang Yang Yang. Referred to as a "designer" in the film, maybe he's less a part of their universe of finance (but he's still loaded, as a romantic boat date suggests), but he too joins in on the exchange of romantic gesturing...though his last moment in the film, for me, suggests something more hopeful. I'd be curious to hear your take on this character, and, ultimately, on where you think the film finally lands, idea-wise, if it does at all...

KASMAN: Paul's character is an important one in the film; as you indicate, his attitude towards and infatuation with Yang Yang Yang is missing the conceited, flip-flopping love and anger of the story's other lovers. That being said, To's direction has almost zero psychological depth here, and despite Paul's comparatively pure earnestness, he seems more like boy toy, faux-bohemian arm candy than a person embodying any kind of strong morality or good value. The fact he noticed Yang Yang Yang because she was having trouble driving her Ferrari, and despite the fact that this man who is a "Mini Cooper person, not a Ferrari person" unexpectedly owns a luxury yacht for unexplained reasons...it's this kind of sloppiness that I think detractors of To and Wai's lighter efforts would single out. Me, I prefer the film's delirious riffs on coincidences, the complex spectatorship of urban desire in a techno-luxurious world, the mirroring of options and chances in life—if there's one thing you want, there are two kind of them, or more, two men, two women, two cars, two flats,  branching possibilities of romance and fun, strong Wai Ka-fai characteristics. This is the meat to me rather than the bones; the skeleton of the film isn't its structure, these entitled rich live such a slick lives that it makes it easy for the film to flow quickly, turn on a dime, replicate and spawn obstacles and complications. Maybe the film should have been programmed in Wavelengths!

COOK: I agree, and the substance and pleasure of the film comes from its boisterous displays and formal design—but in a film that works as a series of gestures, its last two resonate most strongly. Paul, conceding to Yang Yang Yang, yet still following her, helps her put her shoes on in an elevator as the door closes, a smaller, more contented gesture. In contrast to this optimistic image, we find Kevin, left alone, lost, and in the last shot of a film filled to the brim with distractions and rapid fire moments of fun, To dwells on a very real consequence of this lifestyle of juggling love and money. It's a bit of a shame that his character barely appears in the film after being one of the three leads in the predecessor; the film suffers from the absence of his warmth, but it makes dramatic sense, as he's the one character to have settled down, and has no reason to "compete" until the climactic sequence (a building-scaling stunner!). I recall you remarked to me about the integration of Mainland China into To's cinema. With Drug War, we actually had a Mainland production, and here we have Koo as a rival of this Mainlander, who in this film is sidelined to Mainland China the entire film, an interesting political tension perhaps, that underlies the film. Hong Kong, as a setting, has been explored in countless films, but for me it is this eccentric, commercial-pop two-parter (can we hope for a trilogy?) that gives me such a vivid sense of it. Wong Kar-wai explores the nooks and crannies that get closer to contemporary life (and its alienating effects) on a smaller scale, but here To presents what is for me a really honest portrayal of a 21st century late-capitalist metropolis on its own terms—and I think both Don't Go Breaking My Heart and its sequel are among cinema's great "city" films.

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