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Don't Go Breaking My Heart
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by Jay Seaver

"Romantic comedy that remembers it's supposed to be fun."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though it is quite possibly in your head just from reading this film's title, a certain 1978 Elton John/Kiki Dee duet makes no appearance on this movie's soundtrack, in any language. It has one part too few, after all - "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", the movie, has three fine leads, making for a love triangle that manages to be balanced and very, very funny.

Chang Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) is a catch - she's pretty, smart, cheerful, kind, and funny. Her ex-boyfriend with the bitchy, pregnant new wife seems painfully aware of this. Cheung Shen-ran (Louis Koo Tin-lok), the hunky investment banker with the office across the street, sees it, silently flirting via messages in the window before asking her out. Fang QiHong (Daniel Wu Yan-zu), a disheveled architect whose drinking has made him fall from the top of his profession, also sees it; he meets her by chance, helps her convert her ex's junk into an upbeat new look (though he keeps the frog), and even lays off the sauce so that he can show her something impressive. However, a pair of missed connections means she winds up dating neither. At least, not in 2008. Three years later, Zixin's company hires Shen-ran as the new head of the Hong Kong office, while a cleaned up QiFong moves into the office across the way that had been vacant since the US financial crash.

Many romantic comedies run on coincidence; Don't Go Breaking My Heart is able to embrace it. This can be a massive cheat, but it works here in large part because the filmmakers see happenstance not as shortcuts or justification (the "it's destiny" play), but opportunities. Zixin encounters the same people repeatedly, yes, but what's important is what she does with those chances. The script has other tricks up its sleeves, of course, and put together they make for a winning combination of surprises and wit.

Another surprise is just how well the movie juggles Zixin's two beaus. Standard operating procedure is to have one "good" and one "bad", with the latter mainly a plot device,but it's mixed up a little here: Shen-ran certainly resembles the obnoxious obstacle, but we see more of him than QiFong, with enough backstory to make him appealing even considering the regular jerk moves he makes. Louis Koo jumps into the role with a vengeance, bouncing from swoon-inducing swagger to the king of stunned incomprehension of his having a rival, leading to both hissable pettiness and actual openness.

Daniel Wu brings a different sort of appeal as QiFong, scruffily manic in the opening section, but not bottomed out. Later, he's funny in a low-key way, a guy who has learned not to oversell himself but also not sell himself short. Meanwhile, Gao Yuanyuan is everything one could want as Zixin; as much as her character is down in the dumps at the start of the film, she gets over it fast, and Gao plays her with the same smarts and exuberance as the guys. She's able to be funny and even frivolous without being close to a ditz. She also doesn't make self-examination into self-pity. Add it all together - and sprinkle it with amusing supporting turns by Lam Suet, J.J. Jia, and others - and it's the rare love triangle that works, both by Zixin being worth competing for and the guys being worthy suitors, with chemistry there in every configuration.

And with Johnnie To directing, things go down pretty easy. To is best known for his non-nonsense crime pictures, but it turns out that he's pretty darn skilled when it comes to comedy, too. He keeps the banter snappy, even when it involves a croaking frog. He's also tremendous at getting the movie's unconventional staging right - this is a film where characters have to interact from behind windows on opposite sides of the street, and he gets the vibe right without resorting to split-screens. Even the places where one might expect an action director to revert to type fit in perfectly with this sort of picture - energetic, sure, but also effervescent.

It sometimes seems like a romantic comedy that's fun from start to finish is a rarity, but To, Gao, Koo, and Wu pull it off with style. It may be the opposite of what one expects from Johnnie To, but that just goes to show that he's a better filmmaker than you may have thought.

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originally posted: 07/31/11 01:00:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Johnnie To
  Ka-Fai Wai

Written by
  Jevons Au Man-Kit
  Ka-Fai Wai
  Nai-Hoi Yau

  Yuanyuan Gao
  Daniel Wu
  Louis Koo

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