If you haven't seen me review many musicals, it's because this is a genre I'm not particularly fond of. And it's not that I can't cope with people bursting into song and dance out of nowhere, it's that musicals tend to be very classical in setup, musical treatment and even overall execution. So along came Peter Chan with his take on the genre and for some reason or another, it just clicked for me. Perhaps Love [Ru Guo · Ai] is a film that perfectly blends old and new and is executed with enough style and panache so to withstand multiple viewings.
In the 50s and early 60s, musicals enjoyed a short period of popularity in Hong Kong, though it was kind of short-lived and it never really rose from the grave once the initial hype had died. Grace Chang became the poster child of this little niche of films, though I have to admit I haven't seen that many of her films (yet). It's actually a bit surprising interest in the genre dwindled because the film and music industries in Hong Kong are extremely connected, with many artists crossing over regularly between both scenes.
You might suspect Chan's Perhaps Love is a cheap, commercial excuse to boost the success of an upcoming starlet or reboot someone's music career, luckily that isn't the case. It's a bona fide musical draped around a romantic drama with some proper film-in-film parallels, while also boasting plenty of cinematic prowess. Chan really went to town and tried to pay homage to the classic musicals while finding ways to improve and modernize them. Not everyone will appreciate the effort, but it's a welcome change for a genre that hasn't really moved forwards in 50 years.
The story revolves around an abandoned love triangle that gets rekindled years later. After going their own way, the three protagonists meet up again to work on an upcoming film production. At first the three seem too detached to revisit the buried trauma, but the story of the film reflects their own drama in such a way that they really can't escape their past. Slowly the nature of their conflict is revealed, but it proves a lot harder to resolve and overcome the old wounds that drove them apart.
The cinematography was in the hands of Peter Pau, a seasoned veteran who shot a couple of China/Hong Kong's most visually striking films (personal favorites include See You Tomorrow and Lee's Adventure). The musical numbers are lush and beautifully executed, though not really out of the ordinary. The editing and camera work elsewhere feels decidedly more modern, creating a fine mix of both worlds. Add the impressive sets and costumes and you have a film that looks gorgeous from start to finish.
The soundtrack too was surprisingly decent. Not that I'm a big fan of the musical numbers here (and I'm sure some experience and/or affinity with Chinese pop music comes in handy) but they were fitting and well thought out. The film score was notably better, although not really the most original. Still, it underlined the romance and drama in the right places and it managed to find a nice balance between sentimentality and subtlety. It's far from my favorite soundtrack, but way better than I expected it to be.
With Xun Zhou,Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jacky Cheung leading the film, my expectations for the performances ranked considerably higher. All three actors deliver, though it's the relationship between Zhou and Kaneshiro that forms the heart of the film. Both were at the top of their game and while Kaneshiro might have had some trouble picking the right films back then, Zhou's taste was pretty much impeccable. The supporting cast is decent enough but they had considerably less to work with, as the focus of the film lies on the love triangle and thus the three leads .
Before revisiting Perhaps Love, I was in fact more worried about the film-in-film structure than I was about the musical elements. I'm always a bit weary of films that deal with film making, as they can get self-important rather quickly, but that's hardly an issue here. The film-in-film aspect is mostly just there to enhance the offscreen love story through all the parallels it holds. It's a way of Chan to reflect, look back and foreshadow the drama of a forgotten love triangle, which is actually quite refreshing.
If you can't stand musicals, this film probably won't sway you enough to change your mind. If on the other hand you don't mind people getting together for the occasional dance and song (backed by a film-in-film excuse), then there's plenty to love here. Chan managed to combine a great many things into one comprehensive package. Perhaps Love looks great, sound good and is backed by three superb performances. It's an impressive film that neatly balances drama, romance and musical bits without letting any one thing overpower the rest.