Yesterday Once More

As strong a reputation as Johnny To has as a filmmaker, his ability to draw audiences lies on much more shaky ground. One of the great mysteries of life is that many of his best films have done poorly at the box office – that great run of crime films during the 1990’s which included The Mission, Expect the Unexpected, A Hero Never Dies and The Longest Nite had one thing in common – they went to box office hell. Then with Running out of Time in 1999 he discovered something that everyone else already knew in Hong Kong – star power – especially in the form of Andy Lau. Lau has been the best drawing actor in Hong Kong for over a decade and his presence almost always guarantees a film a strong opening.  A year later To added even more pizzazz to this formula when he paired up Andy with Hong Kong’s box office queen Sammi Cheng in Needing You. You can’t find two shinier stars and the film proved to be a huge success – the two were magic together at the box office – and in Love on a Diet To showed that even when both stars were covered in a fat suit for much of the film they still could drag in the crowds.
This year has continued the trend. Magic Kitchen (not from To) showed that you don’t even need Andy around much as long as his name is in the credits to have a success (number three at the box office) and Yesterday Once More (number five at the box office) shows that you don’t even really need much of a story as long as you have them both beaming like 1000 watt light bulbs at each other. This isn’t so much a film as a commercial for good living  - a slickly packaged look at glamour, wealth and charm in which plot is almost an afterthought. I have no real objection to this – it is perhaps the price we have to pay for films like P.T.U., Breaking News and even the somewhat disappointing but unique Throwdown  - much better films that don’t even crack the top ten. If every now and then To has to bring in his doubled barrel weapon to make some money in order to make real movies I say fine. And truth be told, I could watch Sammi do practically nothing for ninety-minutes and enjoy it on some primordial level – this movie proves it.
Maybe it’s the cheekbones. Both Sammi and Andy have great high cheekbones – an almost matching his and her set - cheekbones that seem destined for each other from across a crowded room.  Perhaps instead of blood type and horoscope signs, we should be looking for cheekbones that match ours for romance. They simply look good together and it is strangely pleasurable to watch them in a vicarious way – almost as if to say, “I wish I could look that cool and be so nonchalant about it”. The film revels in them – this is the Sammi and Andy show as it wallows in their charms and shows them at their best – on a yacht, a speed bike, playing pool, nice clothes, splashy apartments, behind the steering wheel of an expensive car and so on. To seems so smitten with his two stars that he never actually bothers to make much of a film and for most of the running time this turns into a romantic lackadaisical lark in which the two stars banter and flirt with one another.  Even so it’s hard not to notice that the film is awkwardly structured, poorly paced, replete with unnecessary scenes, devoid of drama and rather a mess in general. But it has the sparkling charm of Andy and Sammi and that makes the film almost worth watching and it really isn’t until it’s over when you ask yourself where the film went. As the DVD package comes with two discs, I almost wondered if I had watched the wrong one! Were these the outtakes? Was the real plot hidden somewhere in the extras? At any rate, it also comes with a calendar that will allow you to see those marvelous cheekbones all year long!
Andy and Sammi are thieves and lovers who tend to squabble over the loot. Both come from good families and really have no reason to steal other than the sport of it – sort of like two Thomas Crowne’s who found each other (and how they pick their accomplices is a nod to this film). One assumes they are very good thieves as they live a lavish life style – but the film doesn’t really show this unfortunately – the three thefts we witness are not particularly clever. After their latest bit of larceny – a lovely pile of diamonds that sparkle almost as much as the two stars – Sammi whines about her share to the point that finally Andy gives her a choice of the diamonds or him and she chooses the diamonds. Much to her surprise he declares that he is leaving her and so he does. Two years pass.
A wealthy suitor (Carl Ng) is pursuing Sammi with all the ardor that money can buy, but she says that unless he gives her some of his family heirloom jewels she will not assent to marriage. He gets the begrudging agreement of his mother (the fabulous Jenny Hu in her first return to the screen in decades) who can spot a thief a mile away since she was one in her earlier days. Sammi’s real plan is to steal the jewels as they are brought out of the bank and she recruits a group of men to literally jog into the guards and grab them and run like hell – with the assistance of a dog! Andy somehow learns of this and follows a similar plan. The scene in which he tests his runner is one of the highlights of the film as the fellow jumps over fence after fence in a wonderful bit of physical agility.
Andy gets the jewels – as Sammi moans that he always wins – and both of them end up for some reason in Udine Italy (the location of a big annual Asian film festival) for some sightseeing and verbal jousting.
Sammi wants the heirloom and Andy teases her about it and then she pouts for a bit and tries again for most of the film. Meanwhile Jenny has set two Tweedledum and Tweedledee detectives on their trail. Her character receives an offsetting amount of time and one has to wonder if this was simply because she is a legend and legends don’t return to acting for cameos – but it completely breaks the already unsteady flow of the narrative every time this happens. Little of this amounts to very much other than taking enormous gulps of Sammi and Andy while watching them play in the sandbox. In the light of day there is really nothing at all admirable about the two main characters – they are thieves who clearly think they are above the rules and if it was almost anyone but these two playing them they would be annoying. One wonders if we would still root for them if they played Osama Bin-laden and one of his wives. Probably. In the end there is an unfortunate attempt for melodrama that is as out of place in this fluffy shaggy dog of a film as a man of honor in the Bush cabinet and the film stumbles badly to an awkward conclusion.

My rating for this film: 6.0 (with any other actors it would be rated a 3)