When you next watch a Jackie Chan film, just remember that his parents – Charles and Lee-Lee Chan – went through hell so the groundbreaking movie star could exist in the first place. A Tale of Three Cities, directed by Mabel Cheung, is a romantic epic set in China’s not-too-distant past; a turbulent time beset by war, espionage, and racial conflict. So when Chan approached Cheung and writer Alex Law to dramatise the story of his mother and father, he was probably expecting an emotionally bruising epic; what he got is TV-movie melodrama of the lowest possible calibre.
From the very beginning, it feels as if Cheung is trying to sabotage every second of her film. The two leads who play Lee-Lee and Charles (Wei Tang and Ching Wan Lau respectively) are fine enough on their own, but even they can’t escape their director’s insistent use of choppy-frame slow motion, sucking out any realness from a moment and injecting it instead with sticky nostalgia. But she goes even further, frequently staging scenes as low-quality clichés ripped straight from romantic films around the word; we fly straight past mere pastiche, and deep into an outer dimension of such infinitely non-imaginative, brain-dead imitation that the movie can never dig its way out again. Romantic dinner-date on top of a disused building, neon lettering serving as a woozy diorama? Check. A man teaching a woman how to shoot a rifle, as a fumbled, badly planned metaphor for their own blossoming love? Check, and check again and again; A Tale of Three Cities forever wallows in its own cheesiness, which wouldn’t be so disastrous if it had a heart to back it up its many empty gestures of high romance.
In terms of practical elements, there are some rather impressive-looking sets, and the colours of the movie do pop off the screen in a lovely-looking, washed-out-watercolour kind of way. But even when the images are intermittently pretty, they’re never beautiful – because there’s never anything of real value underneath. While there are, admittedly, successful moments of tension and convincing grace notes of humour, again it’s all down to Cheung letting a potentially good movie slip through her fingers; we suspect that if someone else went back to the editing room, a half-decent picture could be salvaged. But in the form it exists now, it’s a TV movie-quality production that’s perhaps not even good enough for TV, let alone cinema screens. We deserve better; Jackie Chan deserves better; his parents deserve better. Chinese history, without a doubt, deserves better.