Greater China has somewhat of a tradition when it comes to fated but troubled romances that transcend national borders, with Peter Chan's Tian Mi Mi [Comrades, Almost a Love Story] as one of the biggest spear points of the niche. Snow Zou continues this tradition with Yi Sheng Yi Shi [But Always], a self-written, self-directed romance that feels quite familiar and comfortable, but has one major selling point. From start to finish, the film looks drop-dead gorgeous. And as it turns out, that's enough to make a difference.
No matter how you look at it, Chinese cinema remains a tough cookie to crack for a Westerner with little to no roots in China. China is quickly becoming one of the biggest producers of new films, but separating the wheat from the chaff can be a daunting task. With so many new directors and so many people trying to find their place in this booming industry, there are very little certainties. Usually it just boils down to randomly watching stuff while hoping for the best.
Don't watch But Always if you're looking for something mind-blowingly original. At its core, the film is a very simple romance about two people who seem fated to be together, but keep missing the change to hook up because of circumstances. In that sense, it's very much a genre film, with all the typical mechanics of a romantic drama firmly in place. The writing itself isn't all that special or unique, but if you don't mind a romantic movie from time to time that's not going to be too much of an issue.
The film starts with Zhao Yongyuan and Anran meeting up as very young kids. Zhao is a poor boy, often made fun of by the rest of this classmates. Anran feels sorry for him and decides to watch over him. But their blossoming friendship is cut short rather abruptly when Zhao's father reenters his life, moving him to another city. It isn't until years later that the two meet up again. Zhao is working in a local store while Anran is waiting for a chance to study abroad. Once again the two hit it off and once again life is poised to intervene.
While plot-wise But Always may be pretty derivative, the cinematography and art direction provide the film with the necessary flair. There's hardly a scene where the lighting doesn't play at least some part in the film's visual appeal. Coupled with blisteringly beautiful colors and dreamy, almost weightless camera work it makes for a stunning visual presentation. It reminded me a little of Yan Han's First Tile and I consider that quite the compliment.
The music is less defining, instead it's the kind of soundtrack that will merely enhance the vibe people are already getting for the film. If you think the romance is cheesy and the visuals are overdone, the soundtrack is probably going to make it worse, if you can stomach the romantic perils and you swoon at the visuals than the music will feel more than supportive and appropriate. It's not a great score, it's not a very memorable one either, but it works well as long as you don't hate the rest of the film.
The acting is on point, with Nicholas Tse and Yuanyuan Gao being a near-perfect cast for this type of film. Tse isn't the best actor and as a couple the sparkle isn't 100%, but they're a very nice on-screen duo and there's more than enough romance there. Also (and this might be just my imagination), there were more than a handful of moments where Yuanyuan Gao reminded me of lot of Maggie Cheung, making the Tian Mi Mi link even more obvious. Secondary roles are decent too, with Sam Luet probably being the most remarkable one.
The film's structure is cyclic and is kept up almost all the way through to the end, even so the finale still has a big surprise in store. I won't spoil anything, but if you're checking US reviews of this film you might want to take into consideration the fact that it's more than likely they weren't too happy with the ending, greatly affecting their overall appreciation of the film. Personally I liked the ending, but if you can't stomach the Chinese running with one of the more defining events in recent US history than you might want to give this one a pass.
For the bigger part, But Always is a simple romance about two people who are behaving like alternating magnets. They're madly attracted to each other, but once they come too close they're pulled apart again. You've probably seen this kind of film already, but the presentation gives the film a strong edge and the central duo fits the film like a glove. If you don't mind romantic movies, I'd say you could do little wrong with giving this one a fair chance. That is, if you can track it down.