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A Tale of Three Cities
A Tale of Three Cities

Tang Wei and Lau Ching-Wan in A Tale of Three Cities.
Chinese: 三城記  
Year: 2015  
Director: Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting
Producer: Zhang Dajuan, Nansun Shi, Wang Zhonglei, Alex Law Kai-Yu, Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting
  Writer: Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting, Alex Law Kai-Yu
  Action: Stephen Tung Wai

Lau Ching-Wan, Tang Wei, Qin Hailu, Jing Boran, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Huang Jue, Li Jianyi, Jiao Gang, Philip Chan Yan-Kin

The Skinny: Romanticized biopic of Jackie Chan’s parents is a decently involving and entertaining historical drama that fine for general filmgoers. However, pickier audineces – like those who expect a great deal from a movie starring Lau Ching-Wan and Tang Wei, and written and directed by the filmmakers behind An Autumn’s Tale – may find A Tale of Three Cities underwhelming. I lean towards the latter.
by Kozo:
Hey, Jackie Chan’s parents had their life story made into a movie! While not as crass as the preceding sentence implies, A Tale of Three Cities is a romanticized and underwhelming look at Chan’s parents’ life, especially their experiences during the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, which resulted in both immigrating to Hong Kong where li’l Jackie was born. Mabel Cheung and Alex Law, the filmmaking team behind the sublime (An Autumn’s Tale) and the overrated (The Soong Sisters), deliver a decently-told period piece that references history admirably but fails to support greater themes. This is a perfectly fine movie for general audiences, and it deserves some credit for simply not overselling its “Hey, it’s a movie about Jackie Chan’s parents!” hook. That said, neither its ambition nor its reach is worthy of greater acclaim. Sorry for having such high expectations.

The title of the film refers to the cities of Wuhu, Shanghai and Hong Kong, which Fang Daolong (Lau Ching-Wan) and Chen Yuefong (Tang Wei) travel between as they evolve from acquaintances to lovers before becoming refugees of the Chinese Civil War. After establishing that Daolong is working in Hong Kong in 1951 sans his beloved Yuefong, the film flashes back to the Sino-Japanese War. Recently widowed, Yuefong is raising two girls along with the help of her mother (Elaine Kam), while Daolong is a Nationalist army officer with two sons. The two meet when Yuefong, desperate to support her family, attempts to smuggle opium and Daolong catches her in the act. He lets her go (not really a spoiler, people) but a further connection is established when it’s revealed that the two are distant relatives. Their families meet, Brady Bunch-style, and a few scenes later the two are together and planning to be married. That was fast.

The romance between Daolong and Yuefong happens quickly because it has to; there’s too much ground to cover, from the couple’s separation due to circumstance, Daolong’s wanderings while dodging his former Nationalist Army comrades (he used to do off-the-books wetwork for them and now they’re erasing assets) to Yuefong’s time in Shanghai working for an expatriate family. Tale of Three Cities moves briskly from location to location but it doesn’t make the best of its relationship-building moments. These romantic interludes are not strong enough to raise the love story from conventional to truly emotional or affecting, and some developments are glossed over with dialogue (e.g., Yuefong’s relationship to the Fang family is explained rather than shown) or simply not seen at all (both Yuefong and Daolong spend little time with their children). Exposition also occurs through narration via letters between the two, but it’s handled so blatantly that it becomes clunky.

Daolong and Yuefong actually spend most of their time talking to their friends. While the lovers are separated, Yuefong keeps company with her pal Sister Qiu (Qin Hailu), while Daolong meets goods seller Ah Hua (Jing Boran), and before long the two are best buds. Qiu and Ah Hua mostly serve as sounding boards to the lead pair, but when everyone is reunited the sidekicks get their own romantic subplot, and Jing and Qin provide excellent support. Elaine Kam is also good as Yuefong’s mother; her character has an emotional shift over the years, and Kam conveys the change effortlessly. The leads are comparatively lesser lights. Tang Wei’s role is not a real stretch for her, though she handles it ably. Surprisingly, Lau Ching-Wan fares the worst as his solid physical presence is diminished by his dubbed Mandarin. Lau’s voice is one of his key acting assets, and without its recognizable pitch and cadence, his performance suffers.

A Tale of Three Cities features a larger theme about the Chinese people and how they’re swept along – sometimes tragically, sometimes ironically – towards their fates, but it’s not fully explored. The film ends with onscreen titles discussing families and reunion, which would have greater impact if there was more time spent with Yuefong and Daolong’s children. Fleeting details are effective; the camera occasionally lingers on images like a woman’s bound feet, children dragging bombs, and executions in the street, which add resonance to the depiction of the time period. Despite the gripes, Mabel Cheung and Alex Law do a decent job with a worthwhile subject – they just don’t do that much. Given the stars and the subject matter, A Tale of Three Cities qualifies as Chinese filmmaking low-hanging fruit. Cheung and Law pick that fruit cleanly and efficiently, but lack the ambition and execution to make something truly exemplary. I’m grading this movie on a curve, and the curve is set pretty high. Regardless, Jackie, I like your parents. (Kozo, 9/2015)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Language Track
Dolby Digital EX / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
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