While most of “But Always” takes place in New York City, the Chinese drama’s blend of sentimentality and romantic fatalism is very Asian. American viewers who aren’t Sino-cinema buffs might balk, but Snow Zou’s directorial debut does have a few noteworthy attributes: attractive stars, sun-dappled cinematography and an audacious payoff.
Beijing tykes Anran and Yongyuan meet in 1982, when she transfers to his school. She’s wealthier than her ragged classmates, who regard her with suspicion. The school bully assigns Yongyuan to follow Anran, a role he happily accepts for the next 20 years. One sign of his devotion is that he can always recognize her footsteps.
The kids bond, in part because both lost their mothers in the same earthquake. (His was a peasant; hers was a doctor.) But then Yongyuan’s guardian dies and his uncle takes him away. He’s not allowed to say goodbye to Anran, a pattern that recurs as one or the other repeatedly vanishes.
A decade later, Yongyuan returns to Beijing and encounters Anran, now a teenage pre-med student. She’s grown up to be played by Chinese beauty Gao Yuanyuan (“Caught in the Web”), who in this movie always looks as if she’s just strolled out of a fashion spread. He’s now portrayed by Hong Kong action star Nicholas Tse (“The Bullet Vanishes”), who’s just as pretty as she is.
The couple’s reunion is idyllic, then awkward, then idyllic again. But Yongyuan gets involved in some shady business to raise money for Anran’s post-graduate education. So when she’s ready to leave for Columbia University, he’s disappeared again.
In Manhattan, Anran acquires a new boyfriend, a petulant painter called Michael (Qin Hao). She also works two part-time jobs in addition to her studies. (The movie is not subtle in suggesting that Beijing is now a better place to dwell than New York.)
Yongyuan, who has gotten rich just so he can search for Anran, finds her through Michael’s paintings of her. This leads to another sweet, luminously photographed reunion. But the couple will be torn apart twice more, and the final rupture will make or break the movie for many viewers. It’s shamelessly contrived, but refreshingly outrageous.
“But Always” seems modeled on Peter Chan’s more complex 1996 “Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” in which two mainland Chinese expats attract and repulse each other on journeys through Hong Kong and New York. Anyone who’s seen that movie will anticipate the final flashback in “But Always,” which makes the story’s melodramatic point one more time: Anran and Yongyuan are fated to be together as much as they are doomed to be apart.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Regal Rockville Stadium 13. Contains mild violence and discreet sexual situations. In Mandarin and English with subtitles. 106 minutes.