Today in New York, there was a massive snowstorm that led to my getting off of work early (alongside cancelling happy hours and impressively high surge pricing). In the spirit of New York’s awesome weather, today I am reviewing another love story set in New York. But Always tells the story of two young lovers who met in elementary school in Beijing, in the context of the tragic loss of the Taishan Earthquake (in which I lost my own maternal grandfather, who was a government geologist at the time). As Zhao Yongyuan (literally translated as “Forever”, played by Chinese pop star Nicholas Tse) and Anran (literally translated as “Peaceful”, played by Gao Yuanyuan) grow and mature, they find themselves separated by the inconveniences of life—whether it’s one of them changing schools, or one of them moving to New York to study medicine. And since the film is set in the 1990s, mass social media had not yet been invented, so Yongyuan and Anran find themselves only meeting by happenstance.
In a love that truly transcends temporal barriers, Yongyuan finds himself raised from an impoverished orphan to the head of a successful multinational clothing company; with his newfound success, he chases after Anran in New York, who had not experienced the same level of success as him, and proclaims to her that he has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and wants to share his successful life with her. And although at first Anran rebuffs his attempts to rekindle their old friendship and love, eventually they share a night of passion and intimacy. So the story goes.
At this point, it is far too easy to compare But Always to its close cousin My Old Classmate, since they share many common themes and overtures —from the love story reaching back to childhood, to a career-minded move to New York, and the ultimate tragedy of the “girl who got away”. Because it’s easy, and because My Old Classmate is one of my favourite films, I’ll make this comparison.
In many ways, But Always is a less miserable and tragic film than My Old Classmate, as it tells the story from the perspective of both lovers instead of just one—rather than showing the misery of the guy who let the girl get away, But Always tries to strike the same chord more softly. However, it is inescapable to feel the same sympathy on the part of both the male and female leads, for different reasons—on the part of Yongyuan, the viewer can sympathize with his passion and love for Anran that remains despite his tremendous wealth; with Anran, one can sympathize with her shock at the sudden return of Yongyuan, but her deep-seated desire to finally enjoy time together with the love of her life.
However, in some ways But Always falls short of my expectations, especially after watching My Old Classmate—whether this is a fair assessment or not is up for debate. For starters, I felt that But Always progressed rather slowly in the first half of the film, and failed to develop the characters more deeply as they matured. Little of their emotional and personal development was shown, as they simply jumped from one life stage to the next—and while this served the purpose of advancing the plotline, it did not serve the purpose of bonding the audience to the characters in the film. At the same time, the second half of the film involving Yongyuan and Anran’s relationship in New York felt rushed. Rather than spending time exploring each character’s emotional struggles, the director Snow Zuo (ironic name given what I see out my window) chooses to rush through the checkboxes of a romantic rekindling, and subsequently a tragic unraveling.
While I can certainly relate to the characters in But Always, I feel there is something lacking. In many ways I can’t help but think that both it and My Old Classmate were inspired by a similar backstory, but that the execution in But Always was just less solid. Rather than paint a picture of total misery on the part of the leading characters, But Always toned down the tragedy and tried to tell a more isolated love story. However, in doing so, But Always failed to elicit the same emotional response in the audience that makes me reach for My Old Classmate every time I’ve had a bit too much to drink.
It’s not fair to say that But Always is a bad film simply because it came out the same year as My Old Classmate. It is certainly among my list of recommended movies for anyone asking for a tragic love story, and I highly suggest anyone who has watched My Old Classmate to also take a look at But Always so that they can form their own opinion on the contrasts between the two films. At the same time, I can’t help but agree with the Washington Post when it describes But Always as “shamelessly contrived, but refreshingly outrageous” — the LA Post goes even further to note that But Always is composed of “a slew of contrived or undercooked plot developments”. But Always is one of those films that, like many management consultants’ strategies, had the potential to be great, but was seriously hampered by poor execution.
But Always (Chinese: 一生一世)—China. Directed and written by Snow Zuo. First released September 2014. Running time 1hr 36min. Starring Nicholas Tse and Gao Yuanyuan.