Whether through intention or coincidence, the two press screenings this last Thursday—Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Perhaps Love and Giuseppe Piccioni's La Vita Che Vorrei (The Life I Want)—were both love stories structured as films within a film. As meditations on a theme, they enhanced each other, though they were styles apart.
Perhaps Love is the first Hong Kong feature to open the San Francisco International Film Festival. For that alone, the programmers deserve a nod. Director Chan will be present to accept accolades and there's no doubt this visual dazzler will launch the buzz right into the opening night gala at the Regency Center. But I'm conflicted about Perhaps Love. I loved the look of it but really didn't like the film much at all. I side very much with Twitch on this one: "Perhaps Love is one of those rare films so visually impressive that you [could] literally take it apart frame by frame and not find a single weak image. The images on screen are simply stunning. Unfortunately Perhaps Love is littered with so many other flaws that, pretty pictures or not, the film verges on unwatchable."
I don't know as much about movies as others do, but, I do know that if I go into a movie and immediately discern that it has skillfully thieved from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall, that I'm about to choke—albeit dazzled—on the derivative. But at least derivative of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall, all of whom I like a lot in fact! So, in between trying to figure out whether I'm in the past, present, in the movie or in the movie within the movie, I was also distracted identifying lifts from Phantom of the Opera, some Moulin Rouge, a bit of Chicago…. By the time the whole phantasmagora was over and my mind had been run over by cinematic citation, I really didn't have much left over to feel for any of the film's characters.
Notwithstanding, it's an exuberant eyeful! Even as your eye is drawn in to the clear aesthetic of winter in Bejing—soft snowfall framing two hearts on fire—you are later reminded how fake the snow is, and how the snowfall is cleverly effected by offscreen technicians. That's not very nice. Just when I start to feel something, I'm reminded any feeling I might have would merely be a manipulated sentiment. Not nice at all. After a while I didn't want to risk any feeling whatsoever. Why should I? But then, maybe that's just what the film is trying to present?
So I allowed myself to be the visual sponge the film demanded I be. Sumptuous restless cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Peter Pau (my favorite were the circus scenes, lit from beneath like Degas, staged in bizarre Cirque d'Soleil chic, archetypes in the center ring, rendering love without a net as a trapeze act of trust in the high air). And I applaud Farah Khan's extravagant choreography, especially the "prostitutes" song. Meant to remind you of the "Cell Block Tango", it compiles the gist of this clip, for your perusal via Twitch.
Rewatching that clip reminds me that it looks much better and engages more forcefully without subtitles. Yet another distraction: Subtitles whose cerebral and calculated poetry effectively blocked any sensuality the visuals delivered.
The greatest distraction a film can make is to draw attention to itself. That's why breaking the proscenium and films-within-a-film are true challenges, best for laughs, and difficult to achieve. Chan almost achieved it here—and I really wanted him to!—but ultimately he has weakened the project by winking one too many times at influences, references, resemblances and a steady diet of major talent. An unknown might have injected a bit of love into this piece. Perhaps.
I agree with Graham Leggat that the pan-Asian cast is "ravishing." But someone still needs to buy Takeshi Kaneshiro a swimsuit and his love interest Zhou Xun a dental guard. Please.