A Tale of Three Cities [三城記] (2015)
Starring Lau Ching-Wan, Tang Wei, Qin Hai-Lu, Boran Jing Bo-Ran, Huang Jue, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Li Jian-Yi, Jiao Gang, Phillip Chan Yan-Kin, Wang Zhi-Xuan, He Ya-Fei, Xiong Ao-Yu, Yuan Wei-Xuan
Directed by Mabel Cheung
Expectations: Moderate. I’m curious to see the story dramatized.
After watching Mabel Cheung’s 2003 documentary, Traces of a Dragon, about Jackie Chan’s parents and their wartime struggles before arriving in Hong Kong, I was immediately intrigued to see A Tale of Three Cities, Cheung’s 2015 feature film version of the story. Like everything with me, though, “immediately” turned into 16 months later, so the true story of the documentary wasn’t quite so fresh in mind. This probably worked out for the best, allowing A Tale of Three Cities to exist a bit on its own, although I was also surprised just how many events in the movie I do remember from stories in the documentary. The question of which one better tells its tale is one I’m not entirely sure I can answer, although for me I’d lean towards the documentary. Regardless, it is quite the incredible story that you’re not likely to forget however you take in its specifics.
Our story begins during the Second Sino-Japanese War, with a series of events showing us the food chain of war. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the world generally exists on the principle that everyone is out for themselves, and only the strong survive. The context of war adds a huge amount of chaos to the mix, changing circumstances in a moment, for both good and bad. This is communicated expertly by Cheung in these opening moments, and in terms of the film’s plot it eventually introduces us to Chen Yuerong (Tang Wei), a mother of two young girls who has just become a widow. Cheung chooses to introduce the male lead, Fang Daolong (Lau Ching-Wan), many years later, in the early 1950s when he is working in the kitchen of the US consulate in Hong Kong. We don’t know of his struggles to get there, but the depth of his experience is easy to spot in his eyes and the way he carries himself.