Director: Patrick Tam Kar Ming
Producer: John Sham Kein
Cast: Kenny Bee, Joey Wong Tsu Hsien, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Michael Chan Wai Man, Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Kwan Hoi San, Ng Man Tat, Cheung Tat Ming
Running Time: 90 min.
For ‘heroic bloodshed’ fans outside of Hong Kong, “My Heart is That Eternal Rose” is something of a holy grail: an elusive and hard to come by film with an ending shootout that has long been said to rival the work of John Woo. The first time I saw footage from this movie it was part of the classic documentary “Cinema of Vengeance,” which helped introduce many Westerners to Hong Kong cinema with its wealth of clips from vintage kung-fu and bullet ballet movies. As a young teenager, those few moments of “My Heart is That Eternal Rose” were the most shockingly violent thing I’d ever seen as bullet casings flew out of Kenny Bee’s smoking dual pistols and the bad guy’s bodies erupted with blood in the most (I thought) realistic fashion.
There was probably no way that “Eternal Rose” was ever going to live up to my mammoth expectations when I finally sat down to watch the actual film recently. To my dismay, I found that, no, this movie is not the second coming of “The Killer” – the story is long on aching romance and short on action, and the ending shootout, while spectacular, lasts all of a minute. Still, this film manages to be a genuine highlight of late 80’s Hong Kong cinema due in large part to the dazzling cinematography from frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle (“Chunking Express,” “Fallen Angels“).
Taking a cue from Chang Cheh’s classic Shaw Brothers work, most Triad films from the 80’s explored themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and honor. “Eternal Rose” instead sets a love triangle against the backdrop of gangland violence. At the center of the story is Joey Wong, a fresh-faced girl who runs her dad’s popular soda shop. Her carefree nights are spent serving drinks to the locals while a young gambler, played by Kenny Bee, tries unsuccessfully to win her affections. Unfortunately, her father (Kwan Hoi, who played Tony Leung’s Triad boss in “Hard Boiled“) is a former Triad and it doesn’t take long for his past to come back to haunt him. Pressured by a Triad Big Brother, he asks Kenny to perform a favor by driving an illegal immigrant into Hong Kong. The job doesn’t go as planned and the fallout will affect the lives of everyone involved. Twenty minutes into “Eternal Rose,” I realized I had no idea where the story was going to go – a very refreshing and rare feeling to get from a movie these days.
At its core, “Eternal Rose” is a glossy romantic picture with a few outbursts of gunplay. Once a baby-faced Tony Leung enters the scene, the movie becomes about him and Kenny Bee alternately pining for Joey Wong’s affections. Tony Leung won a Best Supporting Actor in 1989 for his role in this movie but his performance is far from the revelatory work of his later career. Leung is a puppy dog here and the dark Triad underworld he’s immersed in just steamrolls right over his fresh-faced naivety. Tony Leung is probably my favorite Hong Kong actor but there’s no denying his acting style became much more nuanced and subtle after working with Wong Kar-Wai on “Chunking Express” in 1994. Like his peer Andy Lau, most of Tony’s early career is characterized by him making doe-eyed looks for the camera.
Of course, if you’re going to make a love triangle central to your story, you have to have a woman worth fighting for. Joey Wong, a veteran of such films as Tsui Hark’s “Green Snake” and “A Chinese Ghost Story,” is that kind of woman. She’s beautiful, with a striking set of features, but more importantly she’s able to sell the transformation her character undergoes from fresh-faced girl next door to hardened gangster’s moll. If you’re a fan of the actress, “Eternal Rose” is definitely a film to watch. Actor Kenny Bee was a member of Hong Kong’s most popular 70’s rock group The Wynners (along with Alan Tam) before breaking into acting. His character must endure a similar transformation over the course of the film and although he’s not as bad-ass as someone like Chow Yun Fat, he acquits himself nicely during the the final shootout.
It’s difficult to say who was the creative driving force behind “My Heart is that Eternal Rose.” The film was directed by Patrick Tam, who is arguably more well known for his editing work on movies like “Days of Being Wild” and “Ashes of Time.” After “Eternal Rose” in 1989, he wouldn’t direct another film until 2006. David Chung and Christopher Doyle were responsible for the cinematography and Doyle’s fingerprints are all over the film from start to finish. The opening scenes are awash with soft lighting, giving the proceedings a hazy and nostalgic glow before tragedy strikes. When we return to Joey Wong’s world, the film is bathed in the harsh neon lighting of Triad nightclubs. There’s a bravado shot of gangster Michael Chan watching Joey Wong sing onstage where we only see her reflected in a mirror behind Chan’s head. The constant use of inventive camera angles and heavily colored lighting reminded me of Dario Argento’s Italian horror films from the 70’s and 80’s. Of course, Doyle has always known how to express an actress’ natural beauty so Joey Wong never looks anything less than perfect. If nothing else, “Eternal Rose” is a visual feast for the audience.
And when we arrive at the film’s climactic gun battle, the focus – like the rest of the film – is on creating visual poetry rather than extended action choreography. The shootout that occurs, despite its legendary reputation, is over before you know it. A Sam Peckinpah/Brian DePalma-like use of slow motion moves events down to an agonizing crawl. The glacially-paced images are what stay with you: bodies arcing through the air as blood gapes from wounds; Kenny Bee’s blood-soaked face; cars erupting into fireballs. Tony Leung Siu Hung of “Superfighters” and “Bloodmoon” fame is credited as “Action Director” and he’s certainly a talented choreographer, but Christopher Doyle and editor Cheung Kwok (“The Last Blood”) appear to be the ones creating the action through their careful sequencing of events. The climax isn’t a gun fight so much as it is the apocalypse occurring on an interpersonal level.
“My Heart is That Eternal Rose” is really a perfunctory script elevated by the imminent style of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the talent of actress Joey Wong. The synth-heavy soundtrack certainly adds mood but altogether the movie appears to take itself too seriously and the action scenes, at least up until the final battle, are pedestrian compared to the work of John Woo. “Eternal Rose” is the kind of standard potboiler crime story that could have easily found its way into Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” except the screenplay lacks Tarantino’s ear for dialogue and knowing self-awareness. In its place we get Kenny Bee’s dead-eyed stare and one of the most poetically rendered shootouts in Hong Kong cinema history. So maybe it’s a fair trade after all.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10