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But Always
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by Jay Seaver

"But, no."
2 stars

Is it cynical of me to start counting shots between a "New York 2001" caption and the first glimpse of the World Trade Center, or of writer/director Snow Zou for putting the audience in that position? That's not the worst thing about "But Always", though; which takes an inoffensive but enjoyable romance and finds ways to make it uncomfortable when a little bit of thought is applied.

After that opening, the film jumps back to 1976 Beijing, when a doctor goes off on a dangerous mission to help earthquake victims, but gives her 4-year-old daughter Anran the dream of following in her footsteps. Five years later, her father sends Anran to a school in a different neighborhood where she meets poor orphan Zhao Yongyuan, although his uncle Ji (Lam Suet) takes him out of town when his grandmother dies. Come 1993, Yongyuan (Nicholas Tse) returns to Beijing, where Anran (Gao Yuanyuan) is finishing college with an eye toward medical school in America. Their paths cross, and they fall in love, but it won't be that easy.

The thing is, it could be that easy. The story pivots on Yongyuan deciding to break things off for Arjan's own good, which is kind of insulting even in the best of uses, but Zou never seems to see it that way, and the New York set latter segments of the movie not only fail to acknowledge this, but actually push Anran's and Yongyuan's reunion to a kind of creepy place. It's that area where men are applying pressure disguised as grand gestures and what choices the woman makes are either born out of guilt or what men will either give permission or deny opportunity to do. It looks romantic because nobody seems to have consciously bad intentions and scenes call back to earlier moments that were the real deal, but there's something not right underneath.

It can get away with that to a certain extent because the audience wants these two together and will overlook a lot for it to happen. Gao Yuanyuan and Nicholas Tse are a good-looking couple on-screen from the moment their characters recognize each other as adults despite having parted ways at ten, and their immediate chemistry is a natural result of how they each grab an audience individually, with Gao radiating playful intelligence while Tse makes Yongyuan both carefree and industrious. Gao gives Anran's later struggles nobility without making her a martyr, and puts forth an honest and deserved anger on Anran's meeting Yongyuan again. Tse, for his part, does well enough at growing Yongyuan's confidence and humility that the audience wants him to win Anran over even if his actions are kind of questionable. Both pick up the baton very nicely from some adorably younger actors, too.

Zou and her crew do well in building the world Anran and Yongyuan live in - even if the script takes some weird shortcuts, she uses the growing city of Beijing as a nice backdrop, and even if she doesn't intend to love New York quite as much, it looks good. That conscious decision to favor one city over another feels a bit overdone in the second half - all sorts of bad things happen in New York, right up to the big one, while even jail is good back in China - and a voiceover from some radio or television news program disconnected from what's on screen even talks about how Beijing is now the place that international students must consider. That's just the cherry on top of a limp ending that can't even make what it foreshadowed way back at the start mean anything, or come full circle to the bits just after that.

There's some appeal to "But Always" on a surface level - it's got a charming cast and Zou pushes the right buttons to get the audience to laugh or cry as need be. But scrape away the surface and you'll find something that's uglier and in more bad taste the more thought it's given, and the stars' winning smiles can't make up for that.

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originally posted: 09/16/14 15:33:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Snow Zou

Written by
  Snow Zou

  Nicholas Tse
  Yuanyuan Gao
  Hai-tao Du
  Suet Lam
  Alice Li
  Qin Hao

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