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Review: ‘A Tale of Three Cities’, the real-life love story of Jackie Chan’s parents

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With the ongoing 13th Spring Film Festival happening now at Shangri-La Plaza, this is the chance for you to witness on the big screen the real-life love story of Jackie Chan’s parents, Charles and Lee-Lee Chan.

Set in 1930s war-torn China, Mabel Cheung’s 2015 film A Tale of Three Cities (San Cheng Ji) takes us from Anhui to Shanghai to Hong Kong, following star-crossed lovers Fang Daolong (Ching Wan Lau) and Chen Yuerong (Wei Tang) trying to survive the war and holding on to the hope of staying together forever.

This epic war-romance film, running a lengthy two hours and a half, teeters on melodrama but can never be accused of being overwrought. Very traditionalist, complete with slow-mos and a sweeping score, it is old-school cinema but nevertheless engrossing.

Daolong and Yuerong (who would later become Charles and Lee-Lee Chan) have enough chemistry to make the romance work. Although Ching Wan Lau looks significantly older compared to the very youthful Wei Tang, they fit together, with Tang exuding quiet maturity and strength — a smart and clever woman, never reduced to a state of damsel in distress.

It is fascinating to witness a love story blossom in the midst of adversity. World War II is raging — extreme poverty is prevalent. When the two meet for the first time, it is not a fairy-tale moment, but rather a suspenseful, high-tension incident, laced with fear and trepidation.

JACKIE Chan with his parents, Charles and Lee-Lee Chan.

What is more remarkable about the love story between Jackie Chan’s parents is their extraordinary background. Jackie’s father, Daolong, is a gangster and an illiterate spy, while his mother, Yuerong, is an opium trader and works in gambling houses. Both are widowed when they met, with a couple of children in tow.

Daolong and Yuerong’s love story is borne out of deep respect and admiration for one another. Both are tough, adventurous and bravely risking their lives, but they’re also compassionate and kind, stubborn and patient. Hence, they complement each other.

In the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War, just as the two are acknowledging their desire to spend the rest of their lives together, circumstances push them apart. Time and time again.

And so, like an absorbing historical saga, backdropped by bombs, airstrikes and military espionage, we follow Daolong and Yuerong lead two separate lives and spending days, months, and years in search of one another.

As we witness their lives unraveling separately, the narrative spawns subplots, introducing characters close to Daolong and Yuerong, particularly Hua (Boran Jing) and Qiu (Hailu Quin). This romantic subplot does not feel excessive, initially. In fact, they add color and humor to the story. But when Hua and Qui’s romance starts deepening, with their own set of conflicts, the movie somewhat loses focus.

The audience experiences a strong sense of time and culture, which add texture and mood to the romance. But the film is not so much as a romance, really. A Tale of Three Cities is more of an epic adventure that puts us in the shoes of war victims, connecting us to their individual struggles, hardships and intense longing and determination to find their great love.

The film, written by director Mabel Cheung and her real-life partner Alex Law, is inspired by the duo’s 2003 documentary Traces of Dragon, which dissects and traces the life and background of Jackie Chan, including his secret family history — his parents’ dramatic lives, first encounter and many years of finding and losing each other.

Some of the scenes are visually gorgeous, oftentimes artful and consistently inspired. But although you understand the once-in-a-lifetime, soulmate kind of love between Daolong and Yuerong, and you root for the time that they will finally reunite, you are never affected or moved to tears. It’s because the treatment is more straightforward and plain-speaking, more textbook than novel.

The performances are very competent, with the two lead characters having strong onscreen presence. But the very old-fashioned, rudimentary storytelling prevents you from experiencing angst, unease or excitement. This is also due to the fact that you can predict the outcome of the love story because Jackie Chan exists.

Despite the very modest and direct approach to the history of Chan’s parents, the film still has beauty in its simplicity. It is never dull; the whole 131 minutes running time keeps you glued to the screen. The interest, though, lies more on your knowledge and fascination that you are learning about the love story between two people who gave birth to the celebrated global superstar — and, undeniably, it’s one astonishing love story between two intriguing characters.

Yuerong and Daolong’s love story is more incredible than the film itself. But considering how well-loved Jackie Chan is, A Tale of Three Cities is still a must-see. A sweeping epic drama, riveting for its truth and compelling for its content than form, it’s still one absorbing, entertaining piece of Chinese cinema.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Catch A Tale of Three Cities at the ongoing 13th Spring Festival at Shangri-La Plaza’s newest premier cineplex, the Red Carpet, on 2 February, 7 p.m.; 3 February, 1:30 p.m. and 5 February, 4 p.m. Admission is free.

***

13th Chinese Spring Film Festival

Until 5 February, you can catch A Tale of Three Cities (trailer) and other acclaimed Chinese films for FREE at the new Red Carpet at Shangri-La Plaza.

Other films worth checking out are the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival Best Film winner I Belonged To You; the thriller Lost in White; the comedy-adventure Detective Chinatown and the lighthearted romance The Third Way of Love, starring Song Seung Heon and the beloved Liu Yifei (who will be playing in the title role of Disney’s upcoming Mulan).

To further celebrate Chinese culture, and as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations, a Chinese painting workshop will be held on 3 February from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Grand Atrium.

The 13th Spring Film Festival is presented in partnership with the Ateneo Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies and in cooperation with Ateneo Celadon.

 

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