A review requested by Shoumik H, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Johnnie To is a name that you might know, and you definitely should. He is nothing less than the finest director of action movies and crime thrillers in Hong Kong since that country's action cinema wave golden age started to run out in the early 1990s. Which means, sadly, that he hasn't had the international exposure of a John Woo, for example, though that's the company that he deserves to be named in.

But even a genius cannot live on genre alone, and so it was that some half a decade after his major international breakthrough with 2004's Breaking News and 2005's Election, To took his first break from thrillers in a long time, to make a pair of romances, of all things. 2011's politically invested romcom Don't Go Breaking My Heart was co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai (as was its 2014 sequel), but 2012's Romancing in Thin Air was all To (Wai, however, co-wrote the screenplay, along with Jevons Au Man-Kit and Yau Nan-Hoi, reuniting three-quarters of the team that scripted Don't Go Breaking My Heart). So if you happened to wonder what it would look like if an action film expert decided to take a crack at a melodramatic love story on the '50s model - and the more I linger on that formulation, the more I genuinely can't imagine why somebody wouldn't be interested in knowing what that looks like - there's not really a better vehicle out there to scratch that particular itch.

The caveat being that Romancing in Thin Air doesn't actually do much to nod its head towards its director's more visible career. It is a fully committed romantic drama, nothing ironic or genre-mashing about it. And this is absolutely for the good. It's a better-directed film than Don't Go Breaking My Heart, drawing on more of To's established gifts as a filmmaker but always in service to its needs as a melodrama, and while the earlier film ends up being a stand-out romantic comedy mostly because it doesn't take much effort to achieve that in the 21st Cenury, Romancing in Thin Air is a stand-out romance because it's impressively made and sensitively acted. And it has a perfectly suitable screenplay, which is neither a very enthusiastic compliment nor a complaint, exactly.

It's your basic "two lost souls thrown together" deal, opening with Michael Lau (Louis Koo), beloved film superstar and heartthrob proposing to his girlfriend and co-star (Gao Yuanyuan) on the very stage of the Hong Kong Film Awards, where he has just won Best Actor. A whirlwind montage quickly drags us through time and space - I am not slighting the film, I hope, if I suggest that the elliptical, vague editing and pacing here, blithely commenting on temporality and the devouring nature of celebrity news, is my favorite bit of filmmaking in the whole feature - to their wedding, which finds them interrupted at the last second by her old lover (Wang Baoqiang), who reminds her of their promise years ago to always love each other. More elliptical editing throws Michael into a drunken stupor and thence into a truck, where he accidentally heads from Hong Kong all the way to Yunnan province in mainland China, in the fancifully named county-city of Shangri-La. He comes to - barely - at the Deep Woods Hotel, 3800 meters up the mountains, where he's nursed to health by the hotel's owner, Sau (Sammi Cheng), and taught to breath the rarefied air at that high altitude. She's a relatively new transplant herself, having only come to that area seven years prior; Michael ends up learning the full story one night in bar of how she fell in love a shy fellow named Tian (Li Guangjie), who went missing in the forest and has been lost ever since.

The film's original title - I'm an idiot American and don't know if it's in Mandarin or Cantonese, the two languages spoken in the film - translates as High Altitude Romance II, in full defiance of the fact that there is no High Altitude Romance I. And once we've noted that fact, some splendid possibilities start to unlock themselves. We're basically watching a film that's a sequel to itself, though even what that means is a bit difficult to pin down. It could be that the story of Sau coming to the Deep Woods Hotel, finding love, and thus shape and meaning in her wandering life - which we see in detail, taking up a large percentage of the film's 111 minute running time - is High Altitude Romance, and Michael's step through the same process is High Altitude Romance II. It's at least as possible that the film we're watching for about three-quarters of the total is High Altitude Romance, and the sudden, new thing that the film turns into in its last act is High Altitude Romance II; the one where the characters reclaim the reality they would prefer to be true by harnessing the power of cinema itself to rewrite history (the film's final shot, and the meaning it imparts, is also the final shot & meaning of a different film that exists within the movie, and which the characters watch knowing it to be a movie). Both of which are much more interesting possibilities than the watery play on "vanishing in thin air" that the film has to live with in English.

But my point, anyway: the film is about history repeating itself with variations, about lovers finding solace in one another, though not in exactly the ways that genre demands or that the plot sets you up to expect: it's far more nuanced than "broken people meet on a mountain, fall in love", right down to its beautifully unfilled ending. It is, sure, primarily about the way that falling in love makes people feel a certain stability that allows them to go out and fix the rest of the things going wrong in their lives, and Koo and Cheng - especially Cheng, a pop star ending a four-year movie drought with this role - do exemplary work in sketching out the state of people who are quite happy to feel the warm and fuzzy feelings they've got going on, but too aware of what awful things can come of it to let themselves go all the way. To's direction grounds all of this in fully blocked-out, concrete spaces, turning the melodrama into a lived reality, anchoring the somewhat silly supporting characters in a way that makes them feel like personality types and not character models. For something so full of frosty snowbound cinematography - and set, for chrissake, in Shangri-La - Romancing in Thin Air has an awful lot of physical weight.

The one big flaw with it, and unfortunately it's not a little thing, is that to facilitate the development of all these themes, the screenwriters really have to start piling on the contrivances and just-so plot developments in the second half. Basically, the moment that the extended flashback telling Sau's history wraps up, the film plunges headlong into a series of spectacular coincidences and only borderline-plausible character behaviors. This is redeemed somewhat by the way the final 20 minutes shape it and do something complex with it, but the shift from a delicate place-study centered around people who need to get away from life to nurse themselves back the mental health into a romantic thriller about lost celebrities and other shocking discoveries is one that To can't quite handle, and the actors don't even bother trying to rationalise. There's a lot of loveliness and sweet human drama in it, and it's particularly thoughtful about what romantic movies do for us as viewers and why that's both good and bad. Let us not diminish any of that. But let us also acknowledge that the film has lumps and rough patches the like of which no sweetly humane melodrama should need to cope with.