My Heart is That Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1989)

My Heart is That Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1989)

The following is a re-edited and slightly-modified version of the review I wrote for InReview Online's coverage of the Fantasia International Film Festival in the summer of 2023.

One or two festivals ago, I can’t remember which—this time of year they all blend together, I wrote here at InRO about Patrick Tam’s New Wave classic Nomad, a movie about languorous young adults idling away their time in sex, romance, and angular fashions before suddenly finding themselves, in the end, the targets of a politically-charged, ultra-violent thriller. This was the standard approach of the Hong Kong New Wave: mixing the aesthetics and ideological concerns of modernist international cinema with the genre structures of the local popular cinema. As the New Wave directors emerged, they were one by one assimilated into that popular cinema, changing it as much as they were in turn changed by it.

Half a decade after Nomad found Tam working for producer John Sham, who had just finished a highly successful (popularly and critically) run in charge of the D&B Films studio. Their film, My Heart is that Eternal Rose, capitalized on the Heroic Bloodshed trend that was then dominating the Hong Kong market in the wake of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, but, true to form, Tam gave it a modernist twist, both in its visual style and its approach to story. Rather than a straightforward tale of blood and honor among men of violence, as in the films of Woo, Ringo Lam, and their imitators, Tam’s film is a true romance, a tragedy about people who are constantly finding themselves in traps where the only way out is to sacrifice their body for the person they love, which in turn would only lead to more violence and more heartbreaking dilemmas. Call it Romantic Bloodshed and loop in the films that followed it: Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By, Benny Chan’s A Moment of Romance, Johnnie To & Patrick Yau’s The Odd One Dies, Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide, and many more.

Kenny Bee plays a happy-go-lucky guy hanging around the beachside bar run by Joey Wong and her father, played by Kwan Hoi-san. Kwan is a retired gangster, and one day he’s obligated to help smuggle a kid across the border from the Mainland. He gets a corrupt cop played by Ng Man-tat to help, but Ng turns on him and the result is the kid dies and Bee needs to escape and Kwan gets captured. Joey sells herself to another gangster (played with elegant menace by Michael Chan) to free her dad while sending the unaware Bee off to the Philippines. Six years later, the dad is a drunk, Joey’s a kept woman looked after by a sweet but callow Tony Leung, and Bee returns as a killer hired by Chan’s right-hand man, the toupéed and psychotic Gordon Liu. One thing leads to another, as every man in turn tries to win Joey, either through love and sacrifice (Bee and Leung) or violence and rape (Chan and Liu). It doesn’t go well for any of them.

From the first moments My Heart is that Eternal Rose announces its modernity, taking the sleek swimsuits and rectangular spaces and framing of Nomad and giving them a neon sheen (shot by David Chung and Christopher Doyle, the key New Wave cinematographers of the 80s and 90s, respectively), which along with the beach setting and Danny Chung’s synth score, evokes Miami Vice better than any Hong Kong movie ever has. Joey’s bar is an idyllic oasis, a place where everyone can hang out, listen to the surf, and gamble light-heartedly on bar games. Later in the movie, after the tragedies of the prologue, the bar has been sold off. Turned upscale with fancy table clothes and uniformed staff, it’s now completely lifeless and empty, hollowed out by capital. Just as Kwan’s generation of gangster is lost in the modern world, where honor takes a backseat to personal lust and greed (as it would for Kwan as well in Hard-Boiled, where he played the old boss wiped away by Anthony Wong’s ruthless new boss).

Bee and Joey and Tony are stuck in this new world, each desperately hoping for the others to find a way out, a way to leave Hong Kong behind. The final half hour of the film, where all the heroes in turn try to rescue each other by convincing them to leave the other one(s) behind, plays like a screwball escalation of the finale of Casablanca, piling one sacrifice on top of another, hoping each one will be the thing that keeps the others going. Hoping that in the end, it will all amount to something more than a hill of beans.