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).
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).
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.
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.
Distributed by Mei Ah
The transfer is decent - the scenes that take
place in the past look quite lovely at times.
Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks
Subtitles: Chinese , English, Nil.
It includes it's own trailer but no other previews.
The sub-titles are fairly easy to read.