Comrades: Almost Love Story/ Tian Mi Mi (1996)

Comrades: Almost Love Story/ Tian Mi Mi (1996)
Directed by: Peter Chan
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai, Eric Tsang
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Runtime: 118 minutes
WI's Rating: 8.7

the story starts off pretty simply. During the 1980s, Hong Kong was an up and rising economic powerhouse in Asia. It attracted many Chinese Mainlanders (a term to describe those who came from China) who migrated there for employment and success, indicating that there was a lack of opportunities back home. In 1986, Li Xiao Jun (played by Leon Lai) arrives in Hong Kong. He's a Mainlander from some rural community up north. He lived in the tiniest room of minuscule apartment at his Auntie Rosie, who was actually running a brothel, and several other Thai sex workers.  He come to Hong Kong to make some money in order to eventually bring his fiancée down and get married. This task is made difficult because he is rather naive and more importantly, doesn't speak a word of Cantonese. His best hope is to work menial jobs until he can learn the language and better his circumstances. Even though his life was hard due to the language problem, Xiao Jun worked very hard, starting from the bottom as a delivery guy for a butcher shop

He, then, formed a friendship with Li Qiao (maggie Cheung), a tough young woman who be more well-versed about Hong Kong than he was. She spoke Cantonese like a Hong Konger, behaved like a Hong Konger and even thought like a Hong Konger. It begins when he goes into a McDonald's to pantomime his way into ordering a hamburger. The cashier, Li Qiao, is arrogantly frustrated with his inability to speak Cantonese and tells him he'd better get with the cantonese and english because in the hustling capitalism of Hong Kong, people like him don't stand much of a chance. He is drawn to her because she can speak to him in Mandarin and she is very cute. "Are you from the Mainland, too?" he asks. "Of course not!" she says. (It's hard to move up in Hong Kong with that stigma attached.) They end up spending time together.

from this moment, "Tian mi mi" song chants in entire film
They grow closer. At one point she confesses that she too is from the Mainland (but from nearby Guangzhou Province). He replies "I've pretty much known that all along." "They why did you let me take advantage of you?" "I needed a friend and you're the only one I have." They become lovers of convenience and proximity. He still loves his fiancée and sends her letters, but she is distant and Li Qiao is near.

Li Qiao, however, is not the romantic lead often found in typical stories; her main method of making money is to hoodwink fellow main-landers into handing over resources. It just so happens that naive Li Xiao-Jun is one such man to fall for her trickery but, although they begin their time together as deceiver and victim, their shared loneliness and status as desolate souls in a big, bustling metropolis brings them together in a passionate, albeit, doomed affair. 

The two vow to stay only friends, which seems easy as their lives prosper. However, when financial slowdown sets in, things take a turn for the worse. Chiao turns to working in a massage parlor for cash, and comes to question her "friendship" with Xiao-Jun. Xiao-Jun brings his fiancee, Xiao-Ting, to Hong Kong, and Li Qiao eventually takes up with Pao(Eric Tsang),a Triad boss with a heart of gold. However, despite their best efforts, their fates cross again and the two find themselves questioning their earlier choices. 

With a fiance back in China, Li Xiao-Jun knows his time with Li Qiao must end; they depart each other's company physically, moving onto new relationships, but deep inside an unbreakable bond has been formed. In keeping with the film's English title, as much as our leads would prefer this to not be a love story, it is indisputably so - the pair shared youth and fell head over heels with each other and the music of Teresa Teng together. Bonds like these are not easily broken.

Comrades, Almost a Love Story focuses on the isolation in the crowd and correlative loneliness that many newcomers to a big city often experience. Xiaojun and Li Qiao, despite both being Chinese, find themselves isolated amongst the Hong Kongers. Between humorous scenes of them trying to learn English (with an American teacher having his class chant “jump you son of bitch, jump” as they watch a cowboy movie) and their attempts to climb the social ladder as migrant workers, the two eventually fall in some state of love and lust, breaking the oath of fidelity Xiaojun made to his fiancee, brought together by their mutual Chinese-ness in a sea of Hong Kongers who would rather see themselves as British subjects, especially in the face of the repatriation to come a year later.

Director takes an unusual approach to the urban isolation romance. Rather than frame his characters in long shots, emphasizing the crowds around them, he shows them in tight close-ups and two shots, adoringly close explorations of the star’s lovely faces. While there are occasional establishing shots of crowds (Lai bicycling through the Tsimshatsui district, narrating his life in a letter home; Lai navigating a crowd lined up for new housing, bringing water and chocolate to Cheung), for most of the film we are seeing the two leads either alone or together (a few times from the point-of-view of an ATM machine, the pair alone in a small square patch of screen space) while the world outside is reduced to blurry, fragmented noise.

The cleverest of these — and one with huge resonances for Chinese viewers — is the duo’s shared passion for Taiwanese thrush Teresa Teng, whose idealistic Mandarin melodies entranced a whole generation of mainland and overseas Chinese during the ’70s and ’80s. (Pic’s Chinese title, which literally means “Honey Sweet,” is one of her best-known songs.) The duo’s early failure to make a living selling her albums in hard-bitten, Cantonese-speaking H.K. — and their shared grief at her death in 1995 — is the movie’s most touching expression of the often false hopes that power Chinese emigres.

The music of Teresa Teng also plays a huge role in this film. The Chinese title, Tian Mi Mi is one of Teresa’s songs and couple loved humming to the song while riding on the bicycle. Li Qiao was an ardent fan of Teresa Teng and sold her cassettes as a part time endeavour. Li Qiao herself is a very interesting character to watch in this film. Underneath that harsh straightforward manner she displayed, her love for Teresa Teng’s songs represented her softer side. She could have been gentler if life was a bit nicer to her. Yet, unlike the innocent Xiao Jun, Li Qiao was often in a survival mode, her mind set to make money as much as possible. Teresa Teng’s music made the film a much sweeter journey as it serves as a stark contrast to the city-centred cinematography of the film.

The object of their shared affection is Teresa Teng, the legendary and powerfully emotional Taiwanese singer; a performer whose song gives the film it's original title. As one of the first singers to bring popular music to China, her songs were revolutionary - rather than communist anthems celebrating the power of the regime, Teng's tender laments spoke of heartbreak and longing, giving dignity to the self as an individual. This was considered dangerous by a government who were formed on the ideology of the collective over the self and, as such, these simple love songs became personal, political statements.