After finding success in his return to filmmaking with 1986’s Happy Ghost III, Johnnie To re-teamed with actor-writer-producer-Cinema City studio head Raymond Wong for a more conventional romantic comedy, loosely inspired by Billy Wilder’s popular 1955 Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven-Year Itch. Wilder’s film is an adaptation of the play by George Axelrod, who worked as a screenwriter and director as well as playwright. It’s one of my least favorite of Wilder’s films, and also my least favorite of Axelrod’s works (he wrote The Manchurian Candidate, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and also directed the sublimely weird Lord Love a Duck). By reputation this remake might also be the least of all Johnnie To’s 50-plus films but, while it certainly isn’t great, it’s not without interest. That’s one of the nice side benefits of being an auteurist: even an artist’s worst films can be interesting and enjoyable because of what hints or insights they might provide about the greater works. As a side note: this is actually one of Pauline Kael’s more interesting objections to the Theory in her essay Circles and Squares: why is the mere act of recognizing an earlier, usually worse, use of a certain technique or trope interesting? Why should that be a critical value? I don’t really have a good answer for that, but I think it might simply be an attraction for a certain kind of person, one who enjoys putting puzzles together. Finding an earlier example of a later line of dialogue or character type or whatever is like discovering a new piece, perhaps revealing not only more about the whole, but a fresh way of seeing the already-assembled pieces. It may not make the movie better, but it might make watching it more fun. But anyway, even Seven Years Itch isn’t a particularly bad film, it’s just not all that funny.
Raymond Wong, tall and skinny, bespectacled and awkward, cursed with a giant head (I say this with affection as a tall, skinny, bespectacled, awkward, giant-headed man myself) plays a mediocre salaryman living with but not technically married to Sylvia Chang. His mother-in-law constantly berates him for not throwing the expensive wedding party that would make their union official, while his brother-in-law, the omni-present Eric Tsang, is constantly trying to borrow money and/or tempt him with prostitutes. Bored with his life and irritated at the way Chang always sings Chinese Opera with her gay cousin (this is literally how he’s referred to throughout the film, if the subtitles are to be believed: he’s always either “Gay Cousin” or “Cousin Gay”) and makes him the same boring breakfast every day, Wong begins daydreaming about infidelity. On a business trip to Singapore, he carries on a lengthy, montage-filled flirtation with a pretty girl in red stockings, who of course turns out to be a jewelry smuggler using him as an unwitting mule. Then things start getting weird.
Back home, Wong tries to reignite things with Chang. So he takes her to Singapore and tries to get her to dress and act exactly like the other girl. There are shades of Vertigo in these scenes, which are the best in the film. To playfully repeats the same camera set-ups and movements from the earlier sequence, but to comic effect as Chang plays the scenes all wrong, falls asleep out of boredom, and Wong becomes increasingly frustrated. The role-play fails and Chang strikes up a flirtation with an older Chinese-American businessman (apparently named “Mr. Money”). Eventually Chang catches Wong with the other girl (she’s come back to retrieve a smuggled ring she’d misplaced in Wong’s bag which he’d then accidentally given to Chang as an engagement ring, naturally) and leaves him for Mr. Money once they return to Hong Kong. A car chase ensues (with Wong getting sidetracked at a “couples only” hotel, where Chang catches him paying a prostitute so he can enter, as happens to us all). Eventually Wong makes a big scene at the airport, which apparently fails to work and then it all ends happily.
It’s that ending that’s most relevant to To’s later work, as the concept of the Grand Gesture will become a fundamental part of his romantic comedies. Needing You..., in fact, follows much the same trajectory in its final third, with Andy Lau chasing after Sammi Cheng and trying to prove his love as she tries to leave Hong Kong with another, much richer, man (via boat this time rather than airplane, boats being both more cinematic and more final). Don’t Go Breaking My Heart consists almost entirely of Grand Gestures, as Louis Koo and Daniel Wu compete for the love of Gao Yuanyuan with a series of increasingly elaborate creations, from Post-Its on office windows to massive skyscrapers. Most of the other romantic comedies feature them as well (the movie Koo makes in Romancing in Thin Air, the ghost’s actions in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, the final theft in Yesterday Once More). In To’s films, the lover, almost always the man, has to prove himself worthy of the woman’s affection. He has made some mistake that has kept them apart, and he must atone in as elaborate and as public a way as possible. In the later films, the heroine is unconventional, a prankster sort who doesn’t fit in well with straight society. By making his grand gesture, the hero proves that he is willing to play the game with her, that he too cares little for the rules of social decorum.
The romantic comedies are told from the perspective of the woman, or at least it’s her with whom we most identify. But that’s not the case in Seven Years Itch. But for a few scenes of Sylvia Chang in cooking class (where she hears gossip from her married friends), almost every scene is built around Raymond Wong’s character, and he’s not a particularly likable one. Despite a few attempts at critiquing the kind of patriarchal ethos that attempts to justify infidelity (articulated by Tsang and Wong’s male co-workers), the script wants us to root for him, to see his lying and conniving lustfulness as quaint and charming, or at best benignly ridiculous. To gives us a montage of lady parts, close-ups of breasts and legs and asses walking the streets of Hong Kong as they’re ogled by men at every turn (including a recreation of the famous Marilyn Monroe subway grate upskirt-shot from Wilder’s film, one that lingers for quite awhile on the unfortunate woman’s improbably complex lingerie) that is somewhat reminiscent of a similar scene in Orson Welles’s F for Fake, but it doesn’t seem like that’s nearly enough to defuse the boorishness of every male character in the film (Gay Cousin excepted). At times it seems like Wong and To very much want us to dislike the main character (while Chang plays the most emotionally coherent and likable person in the film), but the generic demands of Cinema City-style goofy slapstick prevent them from going all the way with it. Given a darker turn, they might have produced a cogent critique of Wilder and Axelrod’s source material. Instead the film just gets lost in its ambivalence, while giving us a glimpse of better things to come.