March 12th, 2011
Daniel Wu and Angelica Lee in Princess D
Before I proceed with an in-depth discussion of Princess D, a 2002 film directed by Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen, I need to mention a far less entertaining American film I recently viewed. For reasons too boring to explain, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant. The film was impossibly bad, as the two actors seemed to be operating solely on auto-pilot — with SJP (as I’m told she’s called) channeling an only slightly modified version of her Sex and the City character and Hugh Grant recycling that stammering, excessively blinking English gent character he’s been using since the early 1990s. Not only did the two actors possess zero chemistry, but they were unable to convey in any way, shape, or form that their characters did love, do love, or even will love each other by the time the end credits rolled.
My purpose of this extended digression is merely to emphasize just how vital chemistry is to the success of a romantic film. Casting popular actors with toothy grins and throwing them in a few comic situations cannot make up one iota for the lack of genuine sparks between characters. Princess D does not suffer from this same problem, although it’s far from a perfect film. It is by no means one of the Great Films of Hong Kong cinema, but it’s not a total disaster either despite tanking at the HK box office. Instead, I find it to be both an effective and affecting romantic drama, despite its flaws.
The film stars Daniel Wu as Joker (not Batman’s nemesis), a video game developer burning the midnight oil to create the perfect avatar for his company’s new Tomb Raider-style game. Joker despises the big breasted, superbabe approach to the character that his colleague is taking, and eventually finds a muse in Ling (Angelica Lee), part-time bartender at the local rave.
After a little arm twisting, Joker convinces Ling to model for him, but when his employers decide to go with his colleague’s very different vision of the character, he quits and attempts to strike out on his own with independent funding. Providing support for Joker are his little bro, Kid (Edison Chen, playing a slacker with his own romance issues) and their dad (Anthony Wong), a widower who runs a struggling dance studio.
As it turns out, the men in the film aren’t the only ones with problems. It becomes abundantly clear that Joker’s dream girl — Ling herself — has a lot of issues, too, some which not only threaten Joker’s “Princess D” project, but her own life as well. Will Joker and Ling get their $#!% together and make it work? Or will fate get in the way?
To play a computer nerd, Daniel Wu successfully conveys a certain stiffness and awkwardness that belies his model good looks. As his character starts to fall for Ling, there’s a palpable charge between the actors that more than makes up for any deficiencies in the script or the overall plot. There’s a certain rawness and tentativeness in their behavior towards each other that rings so true.
A scene of intimacy in Princess D.
What is perhaps most amazing about Princess D is that even though this qualifies as yet another movie about a dorky guy who finds his inspiration in a beautiful young woman, Ling comes across as a living, breathing character, not a mere plot device. That may have a lot to do with the feminine touch of co-director Sylvia Chang, as most films of this ilk almost uniformly have men behind the camera. Angelica Lee is more than up to the challenge of being a “dream girl,” able to convey so many different sides to the character. The filmmakers, too, are able to reveal a lot about Ling without relying too much on exposition. A shot of Ling’s wrists, for example, say a lot about the character without saying anything at all. Oh, and Angelica Lee can project the right amount of toughness, despite being cute-as-a-button.
Anthony Wong is his usual capable self, and his presence enlivens the performances of the other actors in every scene in which he appears. One could go on and on about the wonders of Anthony Wong, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of one Mr. Edison Chen to Princess D. Simply put, Princess D does the unthinkable. It makes Edison Chen a likable screen presence. After his debut in Gen Y Cops in the year 2000 and several subsequent smirk-filled appearances in other films, I thought it was impossible to find the actor likable. But Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen were somehow able to elicit a playful, incredibly vulnerable acting turn from a still green Edison Chen. Whatever you think of the man’s public persona, his off-screen antics, or his amateur photography skills, you can’t deny that Edison Chen turns in a nice performance here.
Of course, any film that deals with technology — in this case, cutting edge video game graphics — will look dated in the years after its release. But thankfully, Princess D seems very much located in a Sony Playstation 2 time period, so the dated nature of the technology is not distracting in the least. The film’s early, drug-induced scenes in and around the club with its dizzying computer graphics does threaten to annoy (shades of the more recent Ming Ming), but the film quickly settles into a more traditional visual style thereafter. Still, if any movie would benefit from a high definition transfer it’s Princess D — and not just for the CGI scenes.
Still, I wasn’t too crazy about how the film ended. It didn’t really resonate, considering all the build-up involving not only the main story of Joker and Ling, but the various subplots for all the different characters. Even on its own merits, the finale simply doesn’t work. I’m not saying that Princess D required a happy ending, but seeing as how the film’s title track is entitled “I Fly,” could it have killed them to leave us with — oh, I don’t know — a soaring feeling by movie’s end?
Despite my obvious dislike for the film’s conclusion, I think there’s enough going in Princess D’s favor to garner an enthusiastic recommendation. Likable performances and an involving story, not to mention the electric, stirringly real chemistry between its two leads makes it a film worth seeing. To use a possibly confusing Superman metaphor, Princess D doesn’t exactly fly, but is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.