It’s easy to ride Love After Love’s opulent wave of aimlessness for a while, but it eventually all becomes too exhausting.
Love After Love is director Ann Hui’s third adaptation of a story by Eileen Chang, following 1984’s Love in a Fallen City and 1997’s Eighteen Springs. I haven’t seen the latter, but Love in a Fallen City is one of my favorite of her films, a lush romantic drama that revels in the small moments and interplay between its charismatic stars Chow Yun-fat and Cora Miao, relegating most of the plot to conversational asides in an almost perverse manner. So Love After Love, despite the middling reviews it has received since it first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 2020, was a film I expected to enjoy quite a bit. And I did, sort of. It’s a kind of fascinating failure, a beautiful film that just doesn’t feel right in a way that’s tough to pinpoint.
In design, the film is impeccable: gorgeous images (DP Christopher Doyle, working with Hui for the first time, which is unbelievable but true) of gorgeous settings and costumes (by legendary costume designer, the late Emi Wada) peopled by gorgeous actors. Ma Sichun (Soul Mate, The Shadow Play) plays Weilong, a girl from Shanghai who is finishing up her studies in Hong Kong and needs to move in with her aunt (Faye Yu, from John Woo’s misbegotten two-part epic The Crossing), the black sheep of the family because she became the concubine of a wealthy man, now deceased. Weilong is seduced, or rather, allows herself to be seduced, by wastrel friend of the family George (Eddie Peng), who she knows is utterly hopeless, but alas, she loves him anyway.
The film is much in keeping with Love in a Fallen City, in that the heroine bends the expectations of the romance genre to her own desires. But where Cora Miao in the earlier film resisted Chow Yun-fat until he agreed to a relationship on her terms, Weilong first gives into George’s desires, knowing full well he doesn’t love her and, as an overgrown child, is incapable of an adult relationship, and then spends the bulk of the movie trying to figure out what to do about it before settling on her unconventional conclusion. Her ambivalence and indecision are in keeping with the structuring theme of the film, in-betweenness as a state of being, mirroring Hui and Chang’s view of Hong Kong itself as a place caught between two irreconcilable worlds. Everything in Love After Love has a double or triple meaning: a surface opulence masking hidden rot in which our heroes nonetheless choose to indulge, knowing full well the dangers and/or emptiness at the heart of their world. An ornate treasure box with a snake inside, but a snake that turns out to be a favorite pet.
While this all works in theory and feeling, and there’s definitely an attractive vibe to Love After Love, it doesn’t really work as drama. Either because Ma and Peng aren’t able to charismatically convey the interiority of their characters — they seem to wildly swing from moment to moment, rather than embody whole, contradictory but nonetheless coherent individuals — or because there’s something missing in Hui’s conception of the film. Martin Scorsese used a narrator to capture Edith Wharton’s lightly sardonic authorial voice in The Age of Innocence, which plays up the irony of the story and gives us a proper perspective on the strengths and failures of her hero. Eileen Chang uses a similar narrative voice in her stories, but the only narration we get in the film is from Weilong herself, and not very much of it. And it doesn’t clarify anything, but rather, with its wistful melancholy tone, only further muddles the character and story. We need to be able to step outside Weilong’s perspective, but instead we’re trapped with her, and since she’s never sure what she’s feeling or what if anything to do about it, we remain just as lost as she is. We can ride this opulent wave of aimlessness and ambivalence for a while, but it eventually becomes too exhausting and one longs for an end to this pretty world.
You can stream Ann Hui’s Love After Love on Mubi. beginning on March 18.