Intimates

Reviewed by YTSL
 

Though not a great film, my sense is that this 1997 United Filmmakers Organization (UFO) production tends to be unfairly overshadowed by other works.  Made one year after what is widely considered to be the company’s strongest achievement, the critically acclaimed as well as popular “Comrades, Almost a Love Story”, this other dramatic offering whose story also spans decades and a couple’s lifetimes can appear alternately more overwrought and prosaic in comparison (but then, few movies wouldn’t).  That which could be categorized as a lesbian melodrama (though, as the webmaster of the Peter Grimes site started off his review by stating, “a summary like that really doesn't do the film justice so allow me to elaborate…”) had the misfortune too to come out in the same year as Wong Kar Wai’s “Happy Together” (that in which, rather ironically, one of this Jacob Cheung film’s stars’ real life long time beau appeared).

Charlie Yeung and Carina Lau
Additionally, although Carina Lau was the early favorite, Maggie Cheung (the female lead of “Comrades”) ended up winning the Best Actress prize -- for her largely dubbed performance in Mabel Cheung’s “The Soong Sisters” -- at the Hong Kong Film Awards (The announcement apparently so appalled as well as shocked some of the attendees that their loud cries of “yao mo gao cho” reverberated around the auditorium!).  IMHO, this is the greatest injustice of all since the multi-layered performance of the four time HKFA Best Actress nominee -- who sometimes seems condemned to be “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” -- is what really makes INTIMATES as good a work as it is.  Put another way:  In this film, she who had previously convinced as well as impressed when playing formidable femmes (I think of those she essayed in “Days of Being Wild”, “He’s a Woman, She’s a Man”, “Girls without Tomorrow” and “Saviour of the Soul”) reaches new heights with such a sensitive portrayal of a strong woman that the (re)viewer truly feels for her -- and feels her pain when struggling against, or learning to accept, particular fates -- rather than just distantly admire her fortitude (and talents).
Gua Ah Leh, Theresa Lee, Charlie Yeung
Despite her clearly being at its heart, INTIMATES actually doesn’t begin with Carina Lau’s character (who is named Wan).  Instead, the first voice we hear is -- unfortunately -- Theresa Lee’s horribly squeaky one.  Although the young Canadian-born actress and the generations older Gua Ah Leh both do seem to be trying their best, the fact of the matter is that the contemporary subplot -- about a romantically troubled Hong Kong girl-woman whose father has charged her with taking his old family help home to China to meet up with a friend she has not seen for what may have been as much as half a lifetime -- and scenes in which they figure let down the rest of the film.  There apparently is a longer Director’s Cut version of this already not brief – and eventful --drama floating out there somewhere.  While it would help one to understand their characters better should more time be spent on them, I still would wish that if I were to ever see a lengthier INTIMATES, the extra sections would feature the work’s two main women rather than the subsidiary characters essayed by Lee and Gua (never mind the love interests portrayed by Winston Chao and Chin Kar Lok).
When INTIMATES first flashes back to a(n often beautifully reconstructed but definitely not idealized) pre-World War II past, it is to a formal ceremony in which a young woman (touchingly portrayed by the always winsome Charlie Yeung) is being taken into the protective bosoms of a self-sufficient female society of Self-Combed Women (N.B. This is the Chinese title of this often feminist feeling film.  And it may interest some to know that members of this sisterhood -- which really did historically exist (and maybe still does) -- are the subject of the 1991 Gail Tsukiyama novel entitled “Women of the Silk”).  Midway through however, Foon’s initiation gets interrupted by men sent by someone who wants her for himself and paid her parents money to do so.  Events threaten to turn ugly, especially with the induced involvement of Foon’s parents in them (the father’s impotency is frustrating to witness, her mother’s plea heart-wrenching to hear and see).  The desperate girl is saved though by a female stranger passing by in a boat (waterways are as much utilized as roads in the area that is the production’s main locale).
She is soon identified as Wan:  Whom Foon next encounters while working in a silk factory alongside her fellow Self-Combed Women.  As it turns out, that production place of prized silk, “especially fine because they are prepared by virgins” (these women take vows of chastity as well as solidarity), is owned by the man who takes the herself amply sexually experienced Wan as his eighth -- yes, eighth! – wife.  And as one can expect of melodramatic sagas like this one, before too long, he (who is played with requisite sleaziness by Stephen Tung) is revealed as valuing the family business more than members of his household by his willingness to put one of our heroines in a worse situation than the imperfect one she had thought would be her lot in life.  By far the best thing that can be said about what ensues is that the title characters of INTIMATES (also) find out quite a bit, albeit in small degrees, about – including how much and in what ways one cares for -- the other.
Carina and the seven other wives
Although INTIMATES is clearly a Hong Kong film (despite events it depicted largely taking place in Mainland China), it has two flaws which this (re)viewer associates with two Hollywood productions.  The first is that like in “The Joy Luck Club”, certain characters are so strongly drawn and depicted that they end up overshadowing and trivializing others (who end up appearing like spoiled brats rather than fellow suffering individuals).  The second is that, as with “The Color Purple”, there is nary a good man – as opposed to woman – in sight (be it in the past or the present day).  As such, even while I was majorly emotionally affected by the stories of the characters brought to life by Carina Lau and Charlie Yeung, I can’t help but wonder whether the film as a whole would have been better served by not having them stand out so much morally but also visually (The camera does tend to lovingly linger on these two indisputably photogenic women).  This is not least because I think that those two individuals don’t need all that much contrast to look good since they possess ample abilities to impress in their own right.


My rating for the film:  8.

DVD Information:

Distributed by Mei Ah

The transfer is decent - the scenes that take place in the past look quite lovely at times.

Letterboxed

Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

Subtitles:  Chinese , English, Nil.

9 Chapters

It includes it's own trailer but no other previews.

The sub-titles are fairly easy to read.