Everlasting Regret Review

Everlasting Regret is Stanley Kwan’s story of the city of Shanghai from its glamorous heyday in the 1930’s up to the 1980’s. Showing the historical, political and generational changes through the eyes of one person who lives through them, Kwan attempts to make an epic film on a smaller, more intimate scale than would be expected for such a subject.

In late-1930’s Shanghai, a young Chinese beauty Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) is discovered when her friend Lili (Su Yan) introduces her to her photographer friend Cheng (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Entering a beauty contest, she is successful in the Miss Shanghai contest and becomes the escort of a high-ranking Nationalist army official, Officer Li (Hu Jun). But as time passes, the political climate changes, forcing Li to flee the country and leaving Qiyao behind to face the reforms that are sweeping China. She finds love again with a young businessman, Ming (Daniel Wu), but again the demands of work and the continued exodus to Hong Kong also takes him away from her.

There is a very familiar feel to the material presented here by Stanley Kwan in Everlasting Regret, which in its focus on the tragic history of one character to speak for a much wider subject superficially appears to mirror his treatment of Ruan Ling-yu in Center Stage. Where Center Stage at least had a very strong central performance from Maggie Cheung to gloss over the gaps and assumptions made on the knowledge of the audience to be familiar with the subject of early Chinese cinema, Everlasting Regret has neither a strong enough character in Qiyao nor performance by Sammi Cheung to bear the weight of the import of what is going on in the elliptical leaps from decade to decade in Shanghai.

It certainly helps if you have seen any other Chinese films that cover this period – Zhang Yimou’s treatment of the gangster days in Shanghai Triad or his generational family soap opera drama through China’s history in To Live will fill in a lot of gaps, historical events and obscure plot points that are alluded to and left hanging here, as will Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon, Farewell My Concubine and Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story. The impact of the cultural re-education programmes that are reduced here to about 3 minutes of the film are covered in more detail in Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, while the modern look at the contradictions of Shanghai are better covered in Suzhou River. Individually, all those films are much better balanced than Everlasting Regret in depicting the lives of their characters and how their lives are affected by the historical and cultural change going on around them.

Another sense of familiarity comes with Everlasting Regret’s exquisite use of set designs, costumes, hairstyles and period detail, which are all meticulously crafted by William Chang (In The Mood For Love, 2046) and photographed with the same fetishistic obsession as Wong Kar-wai – but here they feel too studiously recreated and imitated. With characters frequently shown at the end of a green corridor, framed through another doorway, smoking pensively while a song croons on the radio in the background, you find yourself drawn to see if the number 2046 appears on the door of one of the rooms. None of this however has the emotional resonance that Wong places in his locations, and worse, it just feels studio-bound when it really ought to be much more evocative of the city of Shanghai that is so central to the film’s purpose.

As the film progresses, the leaps between decades become faster, with characters who only appear briefly on the screen in short episodes, disappearing to have their demise recorded in a matter of fact way on in-between text screens. This does no favours to the actors, who are generally very good, particularly Tony Leung Ka Fai, who is the only character who seems to actually age and bear any weight of what has happened to all their lives. It’s a measure of his performance that you care about the way things turn out more through him than through Qiyao, even though you never really know the depth or true nature of their relationship. Through Leung’s performance, it’s perhaps in Cheng that we see the real Shanghai, witnessing the glory days of the 1930’s, supporting those citizens who remain during the hardships of the post-war years and watching the destructive relationship that a new, youthful generation has with its past.

Everlasting Regret is released on DVD in Hong Kong by Panorama. It is released in single-disc and two-disc editions. As this review only looks at the single-disc edition, I am not sure whether the extra features on the second disc are subtitled in English. The disc is Region 0 and in NTSC format.

Presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, the image is slightly grainy and rather soft, showing signs of cross colouration and macro-blocking. Little of this harms the look and feel of the film, rather it enhances the retro-look of the production design and prevents it from appearing to be a too meticulously stylised recreation of the past. In normal playback it performs well on a standard sized screen, with a fairly stable image, warmth of tone and colour and good brightness balance. Even blacks look fairly solid, although they are occasionally a little hazy and flat through the sepia-tinting effect.

The audio tracks are all fairly strong, giving the choice of the original Mandarin in 5.1 or DTS-ES. A Cantonese 5.1 dub is also provided. I didn’t notice any significant differences between each of the audio choices, since the film doesn’t make particularly strong use of the soundtrack. The dialogue on the centre channel however was certainly more robust and upfront in the DTS-ES mix.

English subtitles are provided in a white font of an appropriate size. There are few very minor quirks in grammar and choices of words, but generally it reads fine.

The only extra features on the single-disc edition are a Commentary by Stanley Kwan, which is not subtitled, and trailers for Election and Drink, Drank, Drunk.

Attempting to take on the scope of a city's history that covers decades of political and cultural change within a film of such a short running time and through the eyes of only a couple of characters, is perhaps a bit ambitious of Stanley Kwan, if not foolhardy. Some knowledge of the history of China is presumed on the viewer’s part, but even with such knowledge, the progression of the characters’ lives is reduced to such fragmentary episodes that it is impossible to feel that you have come to know anything about them, let alone care about them or even understand the complications of their lives and loves. The film however looks absolutely gorgeous, with a strong Wong Kar-wai aesthetic in its treatment of period detail, and it comes across very well on the Hong Kong DVD released by Panorama.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:40:38

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