|Despite first-rate leads and terrific locations, romantic drama But Always is astoundingly shallow and an incredible disappointment. Nicholas Tse and Gao Yuanyuan team for the first time as lovers whose lifelong courtship is by turns serendipitous, ironic and ridiculous. After opening in New York in 2001, the film cuts to Beijing in 1982, when young Anran (Shi Xinyi) met orphan Zhao Yongyuan (Shi Pengyuan). A poor kid assigned by friends to watch over the newly-transferred Anran, Yongyuan takes to his assignment with stalwart dedication. After some initial discomfort, the two become friends and Yongyuan declares, “From now on, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” While a disturbing mantra for stalkers, the phrase actually charms young Anran and why shouldn’t it? These are young, wide-eyed kids with no bad intentions. Both are fortunate enough to discover a soulmate so early in life, and director-writer Snow Xou presents their charmed meeting in an innocent, nostalgic light.
Sadly, the kids grow up and both innocence and intelligence are lost. After his grandmother dies, Yongyuan is taken to Guangzhou by his uncle (Lam Suet), disappearing from Anran’s life without a word. In 1993, college student Anran – now looking like that movie star Gao Yuanyuan – works to fulfill her dead mother’s dream by becoming a doctor. Yongyuan – now looking like dashing Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse – returns to Beijing, where he hawks clothes from a street stall with his uncle. Yongyuan and Anran cross paths again, and suddenly the memories of his innocent stalking come rushing back and they’re back on the soulmate track. Love is rekindled in intimate, dreamlike exchanges framed by glowing lens flares and luscious camerawork. Alas, after the consummation of their love, Yongyuan disappears again. The couple’s childhood friend Sun Yuejin (Du Haitao) informs Anran that Yongyuan has another woman and actually doesn’t love her. Oh, the heartbreak!
Cut to 1997, and Anran is chasing the American dream in New York City. However, Yongyuan shows up, and he’s riding in limousines and paying for expensive meals while wearing dapper suits and flowing scarves. Basically, Yongyuan is a walking Brooks Brothers advertisement, and he wants Anran back. On her end, Anran is pissed that Yongyuan left her hanging and says no to a reunion – not that she’s currently that happy. She’s dating a struggling, temperamental artist (Qin Hao) and has a crappy job working as a dishwasher – so much for that American dream, eh? But Always references the late twentieth century trend of young Chinese travelling to America to make their fortunes, and like last year’s American Dream in China, it indicates that the allure for America has expired and the Chinese diaspora is now returning home where the real money is. However, this China-fluffing is mostly lip service, only showing up in passing or through voiceover. This and other potentially interesting themes are present, but don’t get overtly pushed.
Mainly, But Always is a love story – but not a normal one. This is a SUPER LOVE STORY where clichés fly fast and furious and important details are brushed aside to create drama. When Yongyuan shows up in New York as a desirable rich guy, it’s been only three years since he was street hawking in Beijing. There’s an explanation, but it consists of a fifteen second voiceover/flashback, and is as believable as Nicholas Tse needing cosmetic surgery to become more attractive. Granted, But Always is about an epic love and not how Yongyuan became an instant English-speaking tycoon, but these side stories – the “B” plots – can enrich a film and make it greater. As is, the film sprints through plot checkpoints so it can hit its money moments – two love scenes that linger lovingly on Nic Tse’s chiseled abs – and ask the perfunctory question: “Will they or won’t they?” Numerous times you think they will, but the script twists, turns and contorts itself to delay the inevitable happy ending.
Whoops, prepare for one final contortion that may kneecap that happy ending. The film’s conclusion is predictable if you’re paying attention to where the film opens, when it takes place and what architecture you see dotting the skyline. But Always uses historical events to prop up its story, but their use is pretentious and pandering. Stuff like the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, the death of Princess Diana and the Hong Kong Handover are explicitly cited (but not the Tiananmen Massacre, fancy that), but none of the events really enrich the story or characters. But Always is simply so absorbed in its own romantic tragedy that it neglects to do the little things that would make its story credible. Supporting characters are types, subplots are glossed over and coincidence is leaned upon to shove the film towards its conclusion. But Always certainly looks beautiful, and is as gorgeous as a soft-focus, beautifully arranged jewelry ad about a timeless love. It’s also as substantial.
Fault for But Always can be spread around – even to the lead actors, though their physical beauty is hard to criticize. Gao Yuanyuan deserves her reputation as a romance film queen, and possesses elegance and charm that make her instantly compelling. Unfortunately, even she has a hard time selling this thin romance, and Nicholas Tse looks incredibly uncomfortable as her screen partner. He brings a sensitivity and natural edginess to Yongyuan, but the character is too much of a construct – a fantasy “best man ever” who’s basically a shorter version of one of those lovelorn hunks found in sweaty supermarket romance novels. This is a guy who’ll do everything for his beloved, including stay silent to spare her any guilt – though that decision actually exacerbates the conflict and sets up even more years of torn-apart tragedy. Le sigh. For all But Always attempts – meaning, tragedy and above all romance – it only succeeds at being shallow, manipulative and gorgeously inept. But, but, but nothing.