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She Remembers, He Forgets
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by Jay Seaver

"A flashback romance with something more interesting than nostalgia."
4 stars

The recent influx of Chinese movies directly into American theaters has been an exciting development, although sometimes the variety has been wanting: Not only have almost all of the movies been Mandarin-language selections from Taiwan and the mainland, but there have been an awful lot of nostalgic romances that started to run together. Initially, "She Remembers, He Forgets" looks like Hong Kong getting in on the same action, but if it is, it's doing so in a way that strips a lot of easy sentimentality out and leaves something a little more interesting behind.

Like many of these movies, it features a woman in "Gigi" Yu Feng-zi (Miriam Yeung Chin-wah) who has perhaps not set the world on fire since graduating high school twenty years ago; she's been working in the same travel agency for so long that her boss forgets just how long it's been (fifteen years) and she barely sees her husband Pang Shing-wah (Jan Lamb Hoi-fung) when he is home from work - and she doesn't even know about Lina (Ranya Lee) in Shanghai. Gigi and Shing-wah have been together since high school, back when Gigi (Ceilia So) was a new transfer who caught the eye of both "Mister Handicraft" Shing-wah ("Neo" Yau Hawk-sau) - cooler and more handsome than the nickname sounds - and his best friend So Bok-man (Ng Siu-hin), the bespectacled head of the airplane club. Hearing that Bok-man never married after leaving high school the day of the big open house, Gigi finds herself feeling even more dissatisfied.

It's amazing, in some ways, just how untainted by nostalgia She Remembers, He Forgets is despite the undercurrent of Gigi wondering how her life might have changed had she made a different decision when she was a teenager, and a large part of what makes the movie interesting is that the decision is not the one a viewer might expect, at least not directly. Flashing back twenty years in Hong Kong doesn't just put new songs on the soundtrack or different fashions on the girls, but places the characters in the lead-up to 1997's handover, when it seems like all of their more fortunate classmates have either emigrated or seen their families make plans to do so. Class is an attempt to smother dreams, as everybody is asked to write out five to ten year plans encouraging modest goals and step-by-step plans for accomplishing them. And what's more than that, nothing has changed since then - when Gigi finds her way back to Ying Yan College, the uniforms are exactly the same, the girls wear the same ponytails and the boys the same glasses, the classrooms seem to have only the most minor of upgrades, and the teachers and caretakers from her years are still there but forgetful. For today's mid-thirties Hong Kong residents, their teen years weren't neary so much days when everything seemed possible, but when the future could seem a trap, and the present the result of being caught in it.

They're a stubborn lot, though, and that includes Hong Kong filmmakers like Adam Wong Sau-ping and his co-writer/producer Saville Chan Sum-yiu. Making a movie in Cantonese is not always a mark of rebellion today, but it does show a certain sort of defiant pride; while the cinematography by Tan Wan-kai often mimics the graceful flight of the gliders and paper airplanes Bok-man loved to create, it focuses not on the affluent neighborhoods but the places that look a little run-down, where people with no connection to the mainland live and work, showing them clearly as they are - kind of run-down, cobbled-together, and not yet receiving a spiffy facelift. It's a combination that lets the audience feel that pride but without whitewashing away that there are challenges. The moments of beauty found are often discovery and invention, not perfect creations.

For all the nervousness found in the past, it's still fairly upbeat. Cecilia So, Neo Yau, and Ng Siu-hin make us see Gigi, Shing-wah, and Bok-man as genuine friends with any hint of a love triangle buried deep, and they're a great trio: So doesn't play Gigi as a tomboy despite her interest in planes or interest in running the soundboard rather than participating in a talent show, but she does great at bringing out the deeper kindness and occasional short-sightedness and anger that lurks underneath the cheery exterior. Yau is a charismatic Shing-wah - a contrast with the older version in many ways, but also a believable precursor as an artist in a system that doesn't value rebellion. Ng plays Bok-man as the kid that others might see as kind of troubled, although in many ways he's just perceptive enough to know that his resources and ambitions may be incompatible. It's a delicate dance the three of them do, and when it comes to its end, intriguingly ambiguous - do Gigi and Shing-wah wind up together out of betrayal or just from most kids not looking far ahead?

It makes the older Shing-wah kind of intriguing - Jan Lamb is never called upon to play a villain holding Gigi back, even if it is quite natural to hiss his cheating on her. The impulsive class clown is still there, even if he also has to put a lot of work in to get things done and feels a sense of responsibility toward the employees of his design firm even as he's making vulgar cracks about their clients. He's a curiously flawed guy. Opposite that is Miriam Yeung, who is great as usual - there's a real weight on her as the film opens with every single detail in Gigi's life seeming to be another cause of her malaise, and she carries that frustration without it becoming frustrating self-pity. As she pokes around in her past, she seems to light up and open up even if what she finds is not always happy. It's quiet and natural, but so are the moments when she's overwhelmed, whether because she's found the texts from Lina and is justifiably outraged or when she's comforting Shing-wah and her expression is the perfect combination of kindness, love, and being genuinely pissed off.

As the movie reaches its finale, it becomes clear that many things will remain unsettled in a way that is the opposite of a lot of the nostalgia romances around it, and that often works in its favor - shakiness of plot and coincidences become an illustration of the messiness of life as opposed to things that will tie everything up neatly. That makes it a refreshingly different take on the material, and one of the more worthy Chinese imports to hit cinemas this year.

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originally posted: 12/06/15 07:45:40
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Directed by
  Adam Wong

Written by
  Adam Wong
  Saville Chan

  Jan Lamb
  Miriam Yeung
  Neo Yau
  Cecilia So
  Siu Hin Ng

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