Beautiful and spoiled Jennifer (Cherie Chung) leaves Hong Kong for New York City so she can live with her student boyfriend. Yet once she arrives, she discovers he is having an affair with another woman. Heartbroken and penniless, Jennifer cloisters herself inside her decrepit apartment in a Chinatown slum, where she almost dies from a gas leak until rescued by her distant cousin, Samuel Pang (Chow Yun-Fat). Shabby, but street-smart with a kind heart belying his rowdy manner, Samuel becomes the unlikely catalyst that enables Jennifer to turn her life around. Romantic sparks fly, but the love remains unspoken as both worry they are from different worlds.
Often described as the most romantic Hong Kong movie of all time, this was a landmark critical and commercial hit for the New Wave writer-director team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. Charismatic Chow Yun-Fat and the achingly lovely Cherie Chung had been paired in several films before, but An Autumn’s Tale established them as one of the great screen couples in Chinese cinema. The actors share the kind of natural, easygoing chemistry that transcends the contrived nature of romantic comedies and makes their love story wholly believable. Granted the setup is one moviegoers have seen many times before: she is cultured, soft-spoken but initially spoiled, selfish and shallow. He is uncouth, unruly, an inveterate gambler and brawler and seemingly directionless, but harbours deep morals and secret aspirations. In lesser hands this would be a hackneyed rom-com, but Law’s eloquent script coupled with Cheung’s superb direction and the affecting performances make for a lyrical love story.
An Autumn’s Tale spoke to a generation of young, ambitious Chinese still struggling to assimilate overseas. Its story is one of mutual metamorphosis, as close contact with Jenny engineers a sort of reverse-Pygmalion transformation in Samuel. His life gains the sense of purpose and direction it so desperately needs. Meanwhile our heroine grows steadily more confident and self-sufficient, mirrored by her perception of New York shifting away from a scary, graffiti ridden, crime infested slum. As Jennifer learns to take control of her life and shape her surroundings, she starts to notice the beauty in everyday life, caught in artful, autumnal tones by award-winning cinematographer James Hayman.
Drawing from her own student days in the city, Mabel Cheung offers a fresh perspective on New York, midway between the extremes embodied in Taxi Driver (1976) and Manhattan (1979). The city can be as seedy as a walk through 42nd street (where the leads wander past a grindhouse theatre screening Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981)) or as seductive as the neon-lit buildings and billboards along Times Square, but the most memorable interlude involves Jennifer’s encounter with a sweet elderly couple who hand her a flower just to wish her a nice day.
Although ultimately a benign, humanistic portrait of the immigrant experience the film does not sugar-coat the life. Samuel has violent run-ins with triad extortionists and gang-bangers. Jennifer has to work as a humble babysitter for snooty yuppie Mrs. Sherwood (Gigi Wong Suk-Yee). Though she forms a lasting bond with Sherwood’s neglected daughter Anna (Jeng Ming-Suen), Jennifer attracts unwanted admiration from her sleazy restaurateur husband. Eventually, Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend Vincent (Danny Chan) tries to inveigle his way back into her life. Vincent is drawn as a self-serving, cod-intellectual with a penchant for quoting Woody Allen, whom Samuel amusingly mistakes for Cantopop star Alan Tam. Much of the humour revolves around Samuel’s cockeyed, Cantonese misappropriation of the English language. This results in Chow Yun-Fat delivering hilariously garbled, semi-improvised catchphrases nobody except Samuel is able to understand. Instead of the treacly speeches that characterise most romantic comedies, the love between Samuel and Jennifer takes the form of subtly affecting gestures culminating in a beautifully understated finale guaranteed to touch the heart.