In the early days of Hollywood, it wasn’t uncommon for the greatest filmmakers of the time to work in the romantic comedy genre. Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday), Billy Wilder (The Apartment), George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) and even Alfred Hitchcock (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) put their stamp on the genre during the golden age and, consequently, ended up creating many of the beloved classics that helped define it. In 2014, the state of the romantic comedy isn’t nearly as vibrant. A lot of modern directors run away from these light, cute, humorous stories of finding the one you love like the plague. There have been a few examples here and there in recent years, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and the Farrelly Brothers melding of gross-out humour and romance like in Fever Pitch, but mostly the genre is riddled with films that stay too close to formula and have no real voice of their own. This formula of meet-cute, budding romance, break up, reconciliation, and, finally, love are useless without some kind of voice to differentiate between these stories. The problem with a lack of auteurism in the romantic comedy genre is there is little deviation from formula, and essentially they feel more like products than actual films.
What separates your average, run of the mill romantic comedy from the truly great ones, though, is how a director works their voice into the material. That’s what I love so much about Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. As a filmmaker, Johnnie To has never shied away from any genre, let alone romantic comedy. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is perhaps his most recent classic romantic comedy, and proof that there is still something valid in masters working in this genre. To’s take on the formula elevates this movie into the stratosphere.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a film about a love triangle set mostly in post-economic crash Hong Kong. To visualizes this by making the cinematic language about lines, separation and shapes while still playing into the genre’s formula. The best example of this is how Yen (Gao Yuanyuan), Sean (Louis Koo) and Kevin (Daniel Wu) do most of their communicating through windows. This is most frequently utilized through two high towered buildings set across a vast city landscape. The offices where these characters work have these large transparent windows that see out through the entire city. Theses windows are huge and wide so it creates the feeling of a frame within a frame. The characters get the chance to act out as the lead in their own movie in these frames for the person in the window opposite of them to win over their love interest. Sean flirts across the window by creating post it note faces on the windowsill, almost like materialized emoticons. Yen, in her own frame, laughs and talks back through broad sign language of her own.
Sean eventually catches the eye of Angelina (Larisa Bakurova) in a window just below Yen and creates a situation where he accidentally asks Yen and Angelina out on the same date through this overt sign language. These earlier scenes of communication through To’s playful language are light, funny and sweet in a way that both satisfies the meet-cute formula and his own brand of comedy that’s present in later films like Blind Detective. The third character in the triangle is Kevin and, as an architect, even he is prone to adulation over shapes. In one scene, To uses the shadow of Yen reflected off a billboard to emphasize Kevin’s revelation that he needs to get his life together. And, of course, he creates a building in her honor. One other scene later in the film would have To visually represent the chasm of the love triangle by window frames in separating all three characters by lines and distance. The way that To can communicate so much longing and need for romance but also the complications of having to choose between two men in a handful of images is so powerful.
This is a film where love is held within window frames and the lines those frames create. It’s romance by architecture.
The other classic rom-com trope at play in Don’t Go Breaking My Heartis the competitive nature of its characters. It’s not uncommon for two guys to fight over the same girl in this genre of filmmaking, but here it is taken to extremes not often seen. Kevin and Sean engage in romantic battle for the hand of Yen as if she were the last woman on Earth. This is never more present than in the final scenes of the film where they propose at the same time in very different ways. Kevin brings Yen to the building he built for her after the two of them slowly started falling in love. Then he takes Yen to a restaurant neighboruing the building he created for her, with the intention of proposing. Kevin was there for Yen in the moments when Sean kept getting into trouble with her by leering at other women. In the last scene, Sean takes to the roof of the building Kevin built for her and writes out “Marry Me” in bright red paint with a heart to the side. He drapes this across the building in a grand act of love calling back to the earlier scenes where he would communicate through the windows where they fell in love in the first place.
At that same moment, Sean gets down on one knee and proposes. Yen stands with her back to the window, her reflection shows as well as Kevin’s “Marry Me sign,” and this eminent moment of romantic choice is once again being split by windows. She’s had a long history with both men and her heart is torn, but she makes a choice, and perfectly ends this romantic duel with what her heart tells her to do. In the final moment of the movie, To brought up this supremely difficult decision for Yen and gave closure to everyone in this romance without breaking the rule that a romantic comedy must have happy ending.
It’s these highest-of-stakes moments and his expert visual craftsmanship that make To a master of romantic comedy and cinema. He has always shown a knack for knowing how to play into the sensibilities of respective genres. It’s remarkable how easily he shifts from mode to mode while still displaying his knowledge for those genres and being meticulous in filmic details in one way or another (here with frames). In Election he would stay true to the masculine power game structure of gangster pictures but instead of filling the film with constant violence he would focus on a tightly constructed narrative of bribes and longer takes at tables. He would bring that same meticulous attention to detail in Drug War where the machine-like rhythms of dialogue (specifically in the Hotel sequence) and violence resemble a police drama, but turned up to 11. This is especially true of the final sequence where To would even flip the police drama on it’s head and turn it into something more closely resembling the final shootout of a western. He’s a filmmaker constantly looking to challenge himself with the general idea of how to make a film in different genres while still paying respect to their core principles. He did so in the gangster picture Election, the police drama Drug War, and this romantic comedy.
My heart sings in these happy endings and it’s that feeling that I chase after when watching films. I love the warmth that washes over me whenever I watch two characters finally kiss and get their moment of bliss because, for those couple hours, I’m living through them. I think that’s why I love the romantic comedy. It’s a genre that is always going to reach towards those feelings of joy and doesn’t contain any of the cynicism located in everyday life. Good things happen in films like these. One character always ends up heartbroken in a love triangle, but, because they live in a romantic comedy world, the right person will eventually be there for them too. In this universe, the story always ends with an embrace next to a sunset with the one you love. I think we could use more of that in cinema especially from the greats.