Johnnie To is well known in the West for his action and crime films but, the populist that he is, he’s also a prolific director of romances and musicals. Entire books have been written on To’s filmmaking focusing on the likes of The Mission (1999), PTU (2003), and Election (2005) that don’t even mention his romances and musicals. That’s not to say no one knows about these films; plenty of To fanatics and Chinese audience members are well aware and have championed the films longer than I’ve even known the famed director’s name.
Admittedly, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011), which is now streaming on Netflix, was my first To romance. (Co-directed by Wai Ka-fai.) It won’t be my last.
Stagged in the world of the brokers of the global economy, analyst Cheng Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) breaks up with her boyfriend and ends up stuck with all of his leftover material goods, including a very expensive pet frog and a booze collection. The bearded alcoholic and uninspired architect Fang Qihong / Kevin (Daniel Wu) shortly after saves her from a would-be car accident and promptly falls in love with her, unbeknownst to the object of his obsessive gaze. Chi Yan dumps her ex’s possessions onto the kind but pitiful man, including the frog, and ghosts him—though, not with malintent… she just forgot.
Well, sort of. She forgot because her mind was preoccupied with what was supposed to be a date with Cheung Shen-ran / Sean (Louis Koo Tin-Lok), who flirts with her during workdays from the widow of the adjacent office building. Just as she stood up Qihong, Shen-ran stands her up and has sex with a foreign girl with characteristically big boobs. (To and Ka-fai’s camera makes a big deal of this.) He wants to be with Zixin…he just has a problem committing to monogamy. “There are two types of men. Those who cheat and those who want to.”
The two men spend the better half of an hour wooing her to dramatic highs and lows. Just like in a classic sports film, “wins” and “losses” are traded to great emotional affect. Gestures become grander and grander as they vie for her heart, though their “pitches” are completely authentic and motivated solely by primal emotion. One scales a building for her, the other builds one for her. One makes a proposal sign, the other uses the skyline to write the words “Marry me?” One impresses her with Chaplin-esque charades, the other learns Criss Angel level voodoo.
Despite Shen-ran’s monogamy problem and in defiance of traditional love-triangle movies in which there is a clear right and wrong and we “root” for the woman as she inevitably makes the right choice for herself, both men end up being worthy choices. But, like the post-2008 economic marketplace in which the film is set, men of equitable situations are in competition with one another… the buyer must just weigh the future return.
From what I’ve seen of To’s filmography, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart fits right in with his toying with the idea of fate and the pain that comes with its jettisoning. Like his Drug War (2012) from the following year, the rejection of fate comes with a punishing price; unlike Drug War, that price can be paid with grace.