Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/12 & 10/14
World premiere: 31 March, 2011, China

It's been some years since Hong Kong cinema was a cause célèbre among Western cinephiles, but if that weren't the case, surely Johnnie To would be a name as well-regarded today as John Woo was 15 years ago. He's responsible for some of the most innovative and brilliant crime pictures in recent memory, not just in the action movie hothouse of Hong Kong but in the whole world; his 2008 Sparrow is very possibly the gangster movie of the '00s.

To's career goes back into the '80s, and he's made a lot of different sorts of films in that time, including comedies: but Don't Go Breaking My Heart (co-directed with regular collaborator Wai Ka-Fai) is his first non-crime picture since his international breakthrough. That is enough to give it some value as a curious novelty; but great filmmaking is great filmmaking irrespective of genre, and DGBMH is accordingly, a great romantic comedy: hilarious in places, and sweetly heartbreaking others, and it shares with the director's more action & violence-oriented work a tendency to break the most obnoxious tendencies of its subgenre and turn them to a considerably more sophisticated and intelligent end. It's not just a good romcom; it's a film that understands why other romcoms are bad, and specifically addresses itself to correcting their flaws.

The film opens with Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) waking up in her toy-filled apartment to a little talking robot alarm clock. "Aha", you may say, as I did, "she is a quirky free spirit who loves silly knickknacks. How manic. How pixieish." In point of fact, the baubles are all the leftovers from her very recent breakup to a man she encounters that very same day on a horrible awkward bus ride, where she and he and his pregnant new girlfriend get in a bit of a fight.

Zixin works is an investment analyst, and damn good at her job; but what keeps her going is not the scintillating world of finance but her flirtation with a man across the way, who communicates with her via flowers and suns and happy faces made out of multi-colored post-it notes; a little bit of detective work reveals him to be Sean Cheung (Louis Koo), a CEO of another financial firm, and from his official bio, apparently quite a lover of life. At the same time, Zixin has just made the acquaintance of Fang (Daniel Wu), a down-on-his-luck architect who gratefully accepts the huge collection of liquor Zixin's ex left behind, and even takes care of the frog that man left behind, taking it to be a sign of good luck, for it seems to guide him back to his art and force him to regain a sense of ambition - quite a good bit of work for an animal that only communicates in croaks, but they are very insistent croaks.

Then the world economy collapses.

Three years later, in 2011, all three characters have regrouped: Fang's first building in years is under construction, and Cheung has just purchased Zixin's company. And that, in turn, sets the stage for a triangle between the girl and her new boss, whom she's always loved in despite of his being a callow womanise, and her old architect friend who has never wavered in three long years in his devotion to the woman whose kindness saved him from an empty life of wandering alcoholism.

If DGBMH began and ended with pairing the glacially slow recovery of the international economy over the last few years with the travails of three people struggling to get their lives in order, that would still be a hell of a something - there's no lack of movies from all sorts of countries using similar tricks either to lend the characters gravitas, or to say something about Our Times, but To and Wai do a significantly better job of it than usual, in no way exploiting the disastrous economy for trivial ends, as is usually the case in American comedies set in the same sphere.

Ah, but that is merely the filigree. What makes the film genuinely great, as romantic comedies go, is how it turns that form on its ear: beginning with its Manic Pixie Dream Girl who swoops in and makes two men's lives oh-so-darling, but is self-evidently putting on that persona as a shield against getting wounded by a mean world; and the men themselves are sort of Manic Pixie Dream Boys, with their post-it smiley faces and their serious, soul-searching conversations with frogs, and they to are constantly seen to be more than just the sum of their quirks. One might say, overall, that the film is an exercise in finding the real-world excuses for people to actually act like the adorable and silly protagonists of a boilerplate comedy; and it does this with tremendous skill and intelligent.

The thing that impresses me even more, though, is that the film takes the ossified device of the romantic triangle, and uses it with more humanity and empathy than any other romcom in years; at least, any American romcom, and that is the country that did the most to codify the form over the decades. Thrillingly and amazingly, not one of the characters is the "bad guy"; both men are decent and likable, and even Cheung's womanising ways are dealt with in a delicate way so that we can't possibly hold it against him. We want, very much, for all three people to end up happily, though of course there's no way for that to happen; and because of this, DGBMH grows increasingly bittersweet as it advances, though never to the point it stops being funny. That kind of sensitivity is as rare in modern romcoms as water in a desert, and while the film is basically a trifling entertainment (and too long at that), it's a trifle made with honesty and real emotion. Even the fluffiest entertainment can still be made with all the care that a pair of top-notch directors can bring to bear, after all, and it's in this respect that DGBMH is a masterpiece of lighthearted, insubstantial cinema.