Anna Magdalena (1998)
Directed by Chung Man Yee
Box office gold might flow when three Asian superstars are cast into one romantic comedy but as no bullion made its was into my pocket I’m not impressed. The director’s wet behind the ears, one of the leads is best known for his action roles, the female lead primary economic function is as a pop-singer, the cinematographer’s bored and the third lead seems sorely misplaced in this artificial buttery popcorn fluff.
Chan Kar-fu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, who starred in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels) is an alienated piano-tuner traveling from middle-class condo to middle-class condo on the sunny side of Hong Kong. We know he’s alienated because either his co-workers speak the other Chinese or the DVD producer didn’t bother to add subtitles for their conversation. At night he eats instant noodles and watches his fish, of which he has many, and goes to sleep.
Making a housecall Kar-fu finds himself working amidst a lover’s quarrel; her parents are coming to visit and he’s packing his belonging in an old orange crate because it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to stay. She accuses him of making an escape and he denies it, tho of course this is exactly what he means to do. Improbably the two men find themselves riding the same bus, and improbably Kar-fu finds his quiet little life shattered by Yau Muk-yan (Aaron Kwok) who swiftly installs himself into the piano tuner’s apartment. Muk-yan is an itinerant writer who hasn’t written a book, living off women and lucky bets. They’re the odd-couple without a script, a dour and quiet loner eating instant noodles with the gregarious and frivolous class-clown.
Then Mok Man-Yee (Kelly Chen) moves upstairs and Kar-fu is instantly smitten, spying her as she pours a bottle of water over her head. She plays piano, poorly, right above their heads; “Notebook for Anna Magdalena”, wrong each time, trickles through the ceiling each morning. Kar-fu smiles, drifting off into a reverie but Muk-yan is racing upstairs and pounding on the door. Instant animosity equals slumbering sexual tension and Kar-fu knows this tired plot device as well as the viewer. It’s only a matter of time before the combatants find themselves clawing at each other’s clothes instead of each other’s faces. He also knows that he can’t compete with the beguiling charm of Muk-yan and withdraws into fantasy.
If this was a Hugh Grant/Renee Zellweger movie then the world would right itself. The quiet but nice guy would come out on top in the last scenes and the object of affection would realize what a hidden gem he truly is. The self-centered jerk of a friend would, after some confrontation, wish them the best of luck and return only after changing his ways. Unfortunately the characters of Anna Magdalena don’t really have an redeemable qualities to demand this happy ending or even explain why there should be flowers and sunshine for everyone. Kar-fu is a dour loner who plays the nice guy role but we never see him helping old ladies across the street or being there so Man-yee can cry on his shoulder. The only woman who pays him attention is called Fatty and insulted. He’s really not very interesting at all. Man-yee, for her part, is pretty much a bitch who doesn’t have anything (like a job) to occupy her time except playing the same measure of music poorly on her piano and hardly warrants the attention paid. The most well-developed persona is Muk-yan but the rouge is such a common role and nothing new is added here.
Generally the movie is straight-forward in its delivery, although there are some nicely shot scenes that rise above the mediocrity of the subject matter. Takeshi Kaneshiro seems comfortable in his alienated loner role but Kelly Chen gets paraded out into frame with only her stable of pop star behaviors to rely on. Aaron Kwok’s performance is kinetic but he commits the ultimate sin of Asian-cinema: the comedic overacting pantomime schtick. There are no moments of “what the fuck?” you typically get when watching movies from other countries– this may as well be shot in Hollywood. The only deviation comes in the final quarter of the film when they throw a movie within the movie (or in this case, book within the movie) which introduces the briefly lived characters of a publishing editor and his hopelessly infatuated assistant who argue over the merits of a submission. It’s a fantasy story and the cinematographer finally gets to cut loose but as bizarre as the ending sequences are it’s too little too late.
I found an All Region copy with decent subtitles (some difficulties with plurals but otherwise…) and there’s torrents with English subtitles available, if you don’t believe me and wanna watch it.