Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival
by Sean Gilman Featured Film

My Heart Is That Eternal Rose — Patrick Tam

August 4, 2023

One or two festivals ago, who can remember which — this time of year they all blend together — this critic wrote about Nomad, Patrick Tam’s 1982 Hong Kong New Wave classic about languorous young adults idling away their time in young love and angular fashions before suddenly finding themselves, in the end, the targets of a politically-charged, ultra-violent thriller. This was the standard approach of the New Wave: mixing the aesthetics and ideological concerns of modernist international cinema with the genre structures of the local popular cinema. As the directors of the movement emerged, one-by-one they were assimilated into that popular cinema, changing it as much as they were, in turn, changed by it.

Half a decade after Nomad, Tam was working for producer John Sham, who had just finished a highly successful (commercially and critically) run in charge of the D&B studio. That pair’s 1989 film, My Heart Is That Eternal Rose, capitalized on the Heroic Bloodshed trend that was then dominating the Hong Kong market in the wake of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986). But, true to form, Tam gave it a modernist twist, both in its visual style and its approach to story. Rather than a straightforward tale of blood and honor among men of violence — as in the films of Woo, Ringo Lam, and their imitators — Tam’s film is a true romance, a tragedy about people who are constantly finding themselves in traps where the only way out is to sacrifice their body for the person they love, which in turn would only lead to more violence and more heart-breaking dilemmas. Call it Romantic Bloodshed, and loop in the films that followed it: Benny Chan’s A Moment of Romance (1990), Johnnie To and Patrick Yau’s The Odd One Dies (1997), Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide (2000), and many more.

In My Heart Is That Eternal Rose, Kenny Bee plays Rick, a happy-go-lucky guy hanging around a beachside bar run by Lap (Joey Wong) and her father, Cheung, played by Kwan Hoi-san. Cheung is a retired gangster, and one day he’s obligated to help smuggle a kid across the border from the Mainland. He gets Inspector Tang (Ng Man-tat), a corrupt cop, to help, but Tang turns on him, and the result is that the kid dies, Rick needs to escape, and Cheung gets captured. Lap sells herself to Shen, another gangster (played with elegant menace by Michael Chan), to free her dad while sending the unaware Rick off to the Philippines. Six years later, the dad is a drunk, Lap’s a kept woman looked after by another man named Cheung (Tony Leung), who is sweet but callow, and Rick returns as a killer hired by Shen’s right-hand man, the toupéed and psychotic Lai Liu (Gordon Liu). One thing leads to another, as every man, in turn, tries to win Lap, either through love and sacrifice (Rick and Cheung) or violence and rape (Shen and Lai Liu). It doesn’t go well for any of them.

From its first moments, My Heart Is That Eternal Rose announces its modernity, taking the sleek swimsuits and rectangular spaces and framing of Nomad and giving them a neon sheen (it was shot by David Chung and Christopher Doyle, the key New Wave cinematographers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, respectively), which, along with the beach setting and Danny Chung’s synth score, evokes Miami Vice better than any Hong Kong movie ever has. Lap’s bar is an idyllic oasis, a place where everyone can hang out, listen to the surf, and gamble light-heartedly on bar games. Later in the movie, after the tragedies of the prologue, the bar has been sold off, turned upscale — with fancy tablecloths and uniformed staff. It’s now completely lifeless and empty, hollowed out by capital. Just as father Cheung’s generation of gangster is lost in the modern world, where honor takes a backseat to personal lust and greed — as it would for Kwan as well in Hard-Boiled, where he plays the old boss wiped away by Anthony Wong’s ruthless new boss. Rick, Lap, and Cheung are stuck in this new world, each desperately hoping to find a way out, a way to leave Hong Kong behind. The final half-hour of the film, where all the heroes, in turn, try to rescue each other by convincing them to leave the other one(s) behind, plays like a screwball escalation of Casablanca’s finale, piling one sacrifice on top of another, hoping each will be the thing that keeps the others going; hoping that, in the end, it will all amount to something more than a hill of beans.

Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 3.