With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
Picking a classic rom-com to complement the release of this summer’s buzzy Crazy Rich Asians is a bit of a challenge. Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just the first Asian-American-focused Hollywood movie in 25 years (the last one was The Joy Luck Club), and the first mainstream American rom-com with an all-Asian cast. It’s also the first mainstream American rom-com with an East-Asian-American lead, period. There’s not really any precedent for Crazy Rich Asians, which is what makes the film so exciting and so necessary. But one need only hop across the (Pacific) pond to discover a very different kind of cinematic landscape where Asian-led romantic comedies are the norm. The 2011 Hong Kong-Chinese film Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a gem among Asian-language rom-coms. And there’s one particular performer in the film whose career speaks volumes about Asian-American representation, too.
American audiences generally associate the term “Hong Kong cinema” with the pulsating action movies that brought international fame to actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, as well as directors like John Woo and Stephen Chow. But in addition to its robust action output, Hong Kong also has a long history of producing comedies and, specifically, romantic comedies. Interestingly, it’s often the same filmmakers dabbling in the two genres. Both male leads of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart are also prominent Hong Kong action stars. And director Johnnie To and his co-director Wai Ka-fai have a history of alternating action, romance, and more at their prolific production company, Milkyway Image. American audiences, however, are most likely to know To for action films like Election, Drug War, and Exiled.
Though To brings both passion and style to all of his projects, he’s an unabashedly commercial filmmaker. He once claimed there are only five of the more than 50 films he’s made that he wouldn’t first and foremost consider “business projects.” (Don’t Go Breaking My Heart isn’t one of them.) That’s probably why—and I genuinely mean this in the nicest way possible—Don’t Go Breaking My Heart feels like it was crafted by a computer algorithm that was fed a whole bunch of romantic-comedy scripts and then instructed to write one itself. It’s all sweeping romantic gestures with no real emotional tissue to tie them together. Characters fall madly in love at first sight and then stay in unrequited love for years, despite never actually spending that much time together. First dates end with proposals, vaudeville comedy is the quickest way to a girl’s heart, and the film’s fourth most important character is a frog. It’s bonkers and kind of wonderful.
Plotwise, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart loosely resembles Bridget Jones’s Diary. Lovelorn financial analyst Cheng Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) finds herself drawn to two very different men in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong. One is a charming playboy named Cheung Shen-Ran (Louis Koo) who works in the office building overlooking hers. The other is a sweet, awkward architect-turned-wayward-alcoholic named Fang Qihong (Daniel Wu). As both men pursue her on either side of a time jump (first during the 2008 financial crisis, then three years later), Zixin must decide whether it’s worth taking a risk on a dashing former philanderer like Shen-Ran or whether she can be happy with the more loyal but less exciting Qihong—the rare man who genuinely doesn’t have a roaming eye, which earns him the nickname “the Martian.”
The unique conceit of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is that it offers a love triangle where both choices are equally appealing and where the audience genuinely doesn’t know which man Zixin is going to pick until the film’s final moments. That’s both the film’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness. In order to keep you guessing, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart keeps its characters and relationships relatively thin. So while it’s compelling to watch the twisty-turny story unfold, it’s a little less satisfying to watch it somewhat arbitrarily resolve. But the film’s ending matters less when the journey to get there is so damn charming. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was, in fact, written by human beings and not an algorithm, but as with the Mission: Impossible franchise, plot and character play second fiddle to set pieces. Unlike in Mission: Impossible, however, the set pieces in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart involve big romantic gestures rather than action thrills—although there is an impressive moment where Shen-Ran scales a building to get into a locked apartment, so sometimes you really can have it all.
As cinema scholar Shelly Kraicer notes, To’s diverse filmography is linked by a fascination with spatial structure. That’s very apparent in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, where the picture windows of Zixin and Shen-Ran’s adjacent office buildings become stages on which courtship plays out. Before they meet in person, Zixin and Shen-Ran communicate through gestures, Post-it Note pictographs, and physical comedy routines that pay homage to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin. The film’s gentle tone evokes both the urbane comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and the low-key rom-coms of the early 1990s, but its madcap mishaps and misunderstandings are straight out of a 1930s screwball comedy. Visually, much of the film is a nod to Jacques Tati’s 1967 French-Italian comedy Playtime. Like Love Actually, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart attempts to be a sort of über rom-com that incorporates every trope of the genre into one film. But where Love Actually relied on multiple storylines to allow for such a wide range of elements, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart places the full tonnage of the rom-com genre on one relatively simple love triangle. (The film’s 2014 sequel tried to do the same to lesser results.)
That Don’t Go Breaking My Heart bends but doesn’t break under the weight of so much rom-com storytelling comes down to both To’s confident imagery and to his talented cast. Gao, Wu, and Koo run the full gamut of rom-com acting styles. Koo gives the most cartoonish performance (his character gets violent nosebleeds whenever he spots a busty woman), but he brings just enough charisma and depth to make Shen-Ran feel like an actual romantic prospect rather than a clown. As Zixin, Gao is mercurial but not neurotic, which is a welcome change of pace for a rom-com female lead. Gao is asked to deliver both screwball style outbursts and more emotionally grounded monologues, and she shifts comfortably between those two modes while imbuing Zixin with a spirited independence throughout. Meanwhile, Wu is the most earnest, grounded element of the film, and his is the performance (and the career) I want to talk about most.
Wu has been a staple of Hong Kong cinema since 1998 and he’s recently found success in America through projects like AMC’s Into The Badlands and the new Tomb Raider. That in and of itself wouldn’t be so unusual if it weren’t for the fact that Wu was born and raised in California and couldn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin when he began making films in those languages in Hong Kong. (Wu’s parents are natives of Shanghai, China and spoke the Shanghai dialect at home.) As Wu put it in a 2018 guest post for The Wrap, “I’m an Asian-American actor who went to China before Hollywood would cast me as a lead.” Wu’s thoughtful essay grapples with all sides of the complex issue. He’s thankful for the fact that working in Hong Kong allowed him to focus solely on his craft without having to struggle with issues of racism and representation in the U.S. Yet he also notes, “It is kind of ironic that I had to leave the country for 20 years and become known to an audience of 1 billion Chinese before I would have the opportunity to come back to the U.S. and live my American dream.”
For those who know Wu solely from his more serious action work (he’s been training in the martial art of wushu since he was a kid), watching him play such an adorably earnest character in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a real joy—like discovering Chris Hemsworth’s full comedic abilities in Ghostbusters. Wu brings a blend of comedy, earnestness, and goofy physicality that calls to mind Paul Rudd or John Krasinski. Writer Alanna Bennett coined the term “the look” to describe the ineffable, emotive quality that makes the best rom-com leading men so appealing. As she puts it, “The number one thing a man in a rom-com needs, TV or movie, is the ability to look at their love interest REALLY WELL. The man barely even needs to speak if he just knows how to LOOK at a person.” And in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Wu is pretty much “the look” personified. Hell, he even manages to make a frog-themed ventriloquist act feel genuinely romantic.
In other words, Wu is an ideal rom-com leading man, something that can be especially hard to find in a female-led romantic comedy. In fact, the same year Wu was stealing the show in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Colin Egglesfield was singlehandedly dragging down Something Borrowed back in the States. Of the two, Wu is clearly the far more talented rom-com performer. But would he have had a shot at Egglesfield’s role if he’d pursued an acting career in America rather than Hong Kong? It’s a question Wu broadly asks himself in his piece for The Wrap. Discussing his early career successes, he writes, “Would any of this happened to me if I’d decided to start a career in acting at home? I really don’t think so… If I had spent years in U.S. casting rooms getting rejected because I wasn’t the right skin color, or turning down one stereotypical role after another, or taking said roles because I needed to pay rent, I would have quit a long time ago.”
Given that Wu seems happy with the way his career has unfolded, I’m not trying to argue that in his specific case things should have gone differently. But he stands as an example of the kinds of talent Hollywood has robbed itself of by refusing to cast Asian-American leads in rom-coms up until Crazy Rich Asians. In addition to celebrating the representational strides Hollywood is currently making, we shouldn’t forget the huge net loss of talent that’s come from the American film industry treating whiteness as the norm, particularly in the romantic comedy genre. As Michelle Yeoh noted in The Hollywood Reporter’s insightful piece on the making of Crazy Rich Asians, “I’ve been waiting and waiting [for a movie like this]. I wish for personal reasons that it happened when I first started my career. But the important thing is it’s happening now.”
Hopefully Crazy Rich Asians will be the jolt of energy Hollywood needs to start making romantic comedies that feel more inclusive than the ones that have come beforehand. And hopefully Daniel Wu will soon get a chance to show off his rom-com skills for an American audience, too. In the meantime, rom-com directors everywhere could learn a thing or two from Johnnie To. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart stands as a sterling example of how to reinvigorate a familiar genre without reinventing it all together. It’s stylish, funny, romantic, visually distinctive, and creatively told. To may have had business on the brain while he was making it, but the completed movie is full of heart.
Next week: On the timeless appeal of Sense And Sensibility.