Crossing Hennessy (Hong Kong, 2010)

When the Chinese actress Tang Wei won the lead role of a drama student turned resistance movement spy in Ang Lee’s controversial espionage thriller Lust, Caution (2007), she should have been en route to a major career. Instead, she found herself under scrutiny from SARFT (State Administration of Radio Film and Television) due to the explicit sexuality of her performance, resulting in the cancellation of endorsement activities (print and television advertisements for cosmetic products and snack foods), while her intended role in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s historical epic The Warrior and the Wolf (2009) went to Maggie Q. Tang was awarded the Best New Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and, even in severely edited form, Lust, Caution was the sixth highest grossing film of its year at the Chinese box office; yet Tang was forced to relocate to Hong Kong following the SARFT fall-out and struggled to take advantage of the more positive attention that she received for one of the most fearless performances of the past decade. By contrast, the career of her co-star Tony Leung continued as normal, with the in-demand actor shuttling between mainland and Hong Kong productions. Dropping out of sight, Tang reportedly attended drama classes in the UK before returning to Hong Kong to undertake her first screen role in three years opposite Jacky Cheung in Ivy Ho’s romantic drama Crossing Hennessy. While this is a consciously low-key re-emergence, Tang’s subtly affecting performance as an orphan with misguided taste in men adds weight to an otherwise unremarkable film.

Crossing Hennessy is a Hong Kong reworking of the Hollywood production Crossing Delancey (1988), a sentimental comedy set on the Upper West Side of New York which was notable for Peter Reigert’s romantically-inclined pickle vendor explaining how he gets the smell of his product off his fingers (soaking your hands in milk and vanilla, apparently). This version also tugs at the heartstrings, but the relocation adds a realist edge through comparative emotional restraint and the use of small time crime as a story element.  Loy (Cheung) is an easy-going bachelor in his early-forties who is happily living with his widowed mother (Paw Hee-Ching) and spinster aunt (Chu Mi-Mi). However, his mother has other plans and often sets-up lunches to introduce her son to suitable girls from families of similar social-economic standing. One such girl is Oi-lin (Tang), who lives and works with her aunt and uncle; after a few meetings, Loy and Oi-lin discover that they share an enthusiasm for mystery novels and become friends, but romance is slow to develop because they are seeing other people. Loy is close to getting back together with his former girlfriend, the divorcee Man Yu (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee), and Oi-lin is waiting for her boyfriend Xu (Andy On) to be released from prison. Ho shows how the relationship between Loy and Oi-lin develops in tentative steps, but is equally concerned with their individual circumstances: Loy must accept his responsibilities to the family appliance store, while Oi-lin’s best intentions are unable to reform the volatile Xu.

Although the storyline is formulaic – potential partners need time to realise that they are perfect for each other, while families push them together and then pull them apart – Ho’s screenplay largely sidesteps comedic set-pieces or grand romantic gestures in favour of a fairly realistic look at two people dealing with their respective obligations. This sometimes leads to the sense that Cheung and Tang are performing in different films that have occasionally been spliced together; Loy’s storyline is more light-hearted as he tries to continue leading the laid-back lifestyle to which he has become accustomed despite meddling family members, while Oi-lin’s strand is more serious as she devotes herself to Xu once he is released from prison, then wonders if she has made the right decision. Tang uses the sketchy backstory provided for her character (orphaned at a young age, involved with Xu since he saved from being molested on a bus) to inform a nuanced performance that shows how Oi-lin’s dutifulness slips into disappointment. Even though Tang’s career trajectory is still erratic – she starred in the South Korean film Late Autumn (2010) and returned to mainland China for a part in the propaganda blockbuster The Founding of a Party (2011), only for her scenes to be removed from the final cut – she should further re-establish herself with the martial arts extravaganza Wu Xia (2011). While it may not be a particularly memorable romance, Crossing Hennessy at least reintroduces a dedicated and versatile actress who richly deserves more regular leading roles.