Xiao-Jun is still asleep on his seat as the train pulls up at Kowloon station. Who knows what he's dreaming of? Like countless travelers before him, he wakes up in a new town. Yet he is not a traveler. Xiao-Jun is a migrant. Hong Kong is, or so he believes, his final destination. Unencumbered by the weight of experience and familiarity (he doesn't even speak Cantonese), it is with a childlike sense of wonder that he discovers the city and its inhabitants. Xiao-Jun is unfazed when turning up at his auntie's place, he discovers that her apartment doubles as a whorehouse. Welcomed with opened arms by his aunt, he moves in the closet-sized room she allocates to him. Rosie as his aunt likes to be called is a sweet old lady who treasures the memory of a magical evening she spent years ago with handsome William Holden. Even after so many years, she still persists in harboring the improbable hope that the actor, who had been in Hong Kong at the time for the filming of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, will come back one day to reclaim the suit he left behind. The story of her meeting with Holden as recounted to Xiao-Jun by Rosie herself is soon debunked by one of her old friends who explains to him that she is "nuts": the man she claims was William Holden had in fact been "just a boozer" she had picked up on the street. Reality often falls short of one's expectations. This becomes even more apparent when Xiao-Jun obviously embellishes the facts of his current circumstances in the letters he writes to Xiao-Ting, the fiancée he hopes to bring to Hong Kong once he has set himself up. Nonetheless, however sordid truth may be, value judgements are irrelevant when the world is so young and new: Xiao-Jun embraces life.
Li Chiao is working as a waitress at McDonald's. She too is a migrant. When she meets Xiao-Jun for the first time however, it is in Cantonese that she addresses him. Excited by the novelty of the fast-food outlet ("I will go to a place where Wusih people have never been"), he has rushed to her counter with the air of an expectant child. Flashing a regulation smile, she asks him what he would like to have then waits for his order. Xiao-Jun struggles to make himself understood as she stands before him, seemingly impervious to his embarrassment. Her attitude does not exactly help the proceedings. Exasperated by his awkwardness and prodded by the queue of customers stretching behind him, she suddenly repeats her last question in Mandarin. Xiao-Jun is agreeably surprised by the waitress' use of his mother tongue; he is relieved. He finalizes his order, but before he has time to add another word, she brushes him off: "next!" It is quite clear that she has no time for such a country hick. When he asks her moments later if she is, as he is himself, from the Mainland, she replies derisively that people who speak good Mandarin are not necessarily from the Mainland, but that those who do not speak Cantonese surely are. Yet, after a moment of reflection her condescension seems to vanish in the air as she suddenly shows concern for the poor immigrant. An ulterior motive soon becomes apparent when she convinces him that speaking English in Hong Kong is the key to success: fortunately for him, she happens to also work in an English school…
Having enrolled as a part-time student in the school where Li Chiao works as a cleaner, Xiao-Jun soon runs into her again. Misunderstanding his offer to take her to an appointment she must attend, she accepts his proposition and finds herself moments later riding the back of his bicycle, explaining to him that in Hong Kong, one does not offer a girl a ride when one does not own a car. Carefree, Xiao-Jun pedals on as Li Chiao in spite of her previous remark seems to take pleasure in the impromptu ride through the city streets. She begins to sing softly behind him. As if to punctuate the melody, Xiao-Jun joins in with some energetic extemporizations. Any passerby seeing them right now would say that these two make a lovely couple.
From this moment on, a friendship of sort develops between Xiao-Jun and Li Chiao although the latter's intentions are less than ingenuous. Li Chiao is an enterprising woman. Needing help in the florist business she manages in addition to her other jobs, she puts Xiao-Jun's availability and willingness to help to good use by having him deliver flowers whenever he is not himself at work. Nevertheless, with time camaraderie between the two inevitably grows. Li Chiao's bank balance grows too. When a business venture she believes to be sound presents itself (the purchase of a consignment of pirated tapes of Teresa Tang, a popular Chinese singer, to be resold at a profit during Chinese New Year's Eve), she gets Xiao-Jun involved. Although he has only a small sum of money to invest, she takes him on as a partner. Unfortunately for both of them, the venture is a disaster: no one is buying. Depressed and angry with herself (she cannot understand how she could have so misjudged Hong Kong people's tastes and proclivities), she finally admits to herself as much as to Xiao-Jun that she is a migrant, just as he is ("but I am from Guangzhou, we speak Cantonese, we get Hong Kong TV"). He replies that he knew all along, just as he realized early on that she was using him. The reason he did not stop her, he continues, is that she would not have been his friend; he did not want to lose his only friend in Hong Kong. Li Chiao in turn confesses that he is her only friend too. Soon after, they make love. When Xiao-Jun visits Li Chiao at work the following day, she explains away what has happened between them as the act of two comrades feeling lonely. For a moment the emotional space they share seems to be engulfed in a blast of cold air, then it passes and warmth returns as they exchange greetings for the New Year.
Life goes on. The comrades keep themselves busy. Xiao-Jun works in a restaurant where he befriends the chef who teaches him cookery. As for Li Chiao, in order to make up for her loss in the failed business venture, she plays the stock market. They are both working hard toward, and currently succeeding in establishing themselves in Hong Kong. Yet they still feel lonely, in Li Chiao's understanding of this particular emotional state at least, as they take the habit of meeting each other during the day in a small hotel room rented by the hour. Of course, Xiao-Jun has a fiancée with whom he corresponds regularly, but writing letters is becoming increasingly difficult as what must be left unsaid takes more and more space.
If the migrant experience, or the human experience for that matter, has a constant, it is the unexpected: things rarely go according to plan. Ironically, if humanity itself has a constant, it is in its insistence in making plans. It is often in this dichotomy between Life and lives that the seeds of tragedy are sown. Xiao-Jun and Li Chiao each had plans that did not include the other. That they now love each other is obvious yet they cannot admit to it, as it would mean having to abandon their long-held dreams or, to be more precise, having to force the other to abandon his or hers. What would have been the point of migrating to Hong Kong if Li Chiao were to marry a Mainlander? Wouldn't Xiao-Jun be hurt if he were to learn that his fiancée had befriend some man, and was regularly meeting him in a hotel room in order to ward off loneliness? Some questions cannot bear to be asked. Yet, when Li Chiao loses all her savings in a stock market crash and is forced to take up a job as a masseuse in order to repay her debts, these questions loom large. And later on, when Xiao-Jun thoughtlessly yet without malice offers his exhausted comrade a bracelet similar to the one he has just bought for his fiancée, they are inevitably asked. In the end, reality must always be faced… and choices made. When Li Chiao's pager comes to life the day after the fateful confrontation, the dice have been cast. All that is left is a word in the viewing window of the electronic gadget: goodbye.
Time passes. Xiao-Jun has been doing well, so much so that his fiancée has been able to come to Hong Kong and they are finally getting married. All those he has befriended since arriving from the Mainland, lonely migrant with a heart full of dreams, attend the wedding reception. Li Chiao, his first and for a while only friend, has of course been invited even though they have not seen each other since their separation. On her arrival at the banquet, she is warmly welcomed by Xiao-Jun who introduces her to his new wife. She in turn introduces them both to her husband, Au Yeung-Pao. Everyone gets along well. Li Chiao and Xiao-Jun evidently go back a long way.
Since last seeing her comrade, Li Chiao too has been doing well. With Pao's support, she has become a wealthy real estate developer. Her dream of succeeding in Hong Kong has been realized, as Xiao-Jun comments during the launch of her new project to which he has been invited with his wife. She acquiesces while adding that unfortunately, it has come too late for her mother who died before having the chance of witnessing the completion of the house her daughter built in her hometown. That success is often bittersweet is a fact that Xiao-Jun could perfectly vouch for as they chat politely. Still, Li Chiao seems to be happy with her life, thriving as she is in her new career. Moments earlier, when Xiao-Ting confided to her that she had not been able to exercise her own profession yet as she hardly knew anyone in Hong Kong, she immediately offered to introduce her to one of her many contacts.
Soon, the two women become friends. Xiao-Ting is grateful for Li Chiao's kindness and generosity, while the latter takes pleasure in helping the young bride so full of hope and enthusiasm. As time goes by however, Li Chiao becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the friendship as it gives her more and more occasions of seeing Xiao-Jun thereby rekindling a fire she thought had been put out a long time ago. As for Xiao-Jun, seeing Li Chiao again evokes in him memories of a time when the world was still young and fresh and full of promises. When he tells his wife that he wished she could have been with him during his early days in Hong Kong, what he is really saying is that there is an essential part of his life she will never share. Only Li Chiao can relate to the elation mixed with apprehension he felt as he was starting his new life; only she knows… Xiao-Ting however does not realize all this. What she hears in her husband's melancholy is, she believes, the expression of his love for her. She is happy, unaware that her world his on the brink of collapse. Although Xiao-Jun and Li Chiao are trying hard to fight their own feelings in order to protect those who love them, they both in the end have to face the fact that the battle they have been fighting, comrades in exile, is lost. Inevitably, they capitulate. Finding themselves in each other arms in the same bed of the same hotel room they used to call their own in what now seems to be another life, Xiao-Jun and Li Chiao are faced with the inescapable truth: "we blew it".
Can the past be undone? Can a missed train be held up at the next station? Can a stranded passenger find his or her way home? In an indifferent world where mistakes are made every day, where sins by omission are regularly committed, one can only hope. Lovers can only try. Xiao-Jun will speak to his wife. Xiao-Ting will be hurt of course but this cannot be avoided, as he can no longer maintain the lie that has been their life together. In time, she might understand. As for Li Chiao, she will similarly speak to Pao. She harbors so much affection for the generous and sensitive man who always respected her uncompromising stances that she feels she owes him the truth. The journey the two comrades are contemplating at last as they lose themselves in an embrace is a different kind of migration than the one that united them in the first place. They are now, for better or for worse, migrants of the heart.
The future may look brighter for the reborn lovers, yet it is as unstable as it ever was when life lays claim on the present; life always has its ways with the here and now. Presently, Li Chiao is filled with dread when she learns that Pao has disappeared. She is well aware that he is involved in criminal activities and she fears for his life. She is told by the police that he is on the run, even though the authorities have guaranteed his safety in exchange for his cooperation in a case involving some of his former associates. After some inquiries she finds out that he is about to leave Hong Kong clandestinely by boat. Not long after, a speedboat is taking Li Chiao to Pao's ship while Xiao-Jun, who had accompanied her, remains on the pier, waiting for her return. Moments later, she is boarding the vessel which is almost ready to leave the harbor. In the dark and rainy night, Li Chiao's benefactor cuts a lonely figure as she finally stands in front of him, earnestly expressing her concern about his well-being. Pao, surprised by her unexpected appearance, immediately feigns irritation and starts scolding her for worrying about him. Unfazed, she throws herself at his knees and inquires urgently about his predicament. Should he not give himself up and seek police protection? Pao explains that he could never get away with informing on his former partners; the best solution is to disappear in the night. At this point, Li Chiao is on the brink of telling him about her decision concerning Xiao-Jun and their relationship. Misunderstanding a moment of hesitation as just another show of her concern, Pao reiterates his admonition for her to stop worrying about him. In a transparent lie, he adds that he has wives waiting for him in every port. There is really no need for her to be concerned, he assures her, he will be fine. The tears rolling down Li Chiao's cheeks following Pao's ensuing suggestion, that she should forget about him and find herself a new man, tell a story of a grief that nothing will assuage. Nothing is left to say or do. As the engines roar and the ship starts to move slowly in the night, a man can be seen on its deck, gently stroking a woman's head resting on his lap. The woman shows no sign of wanting to get up. Just another boat leaving Hong Kong… Back on the pier, Xiao-Jun waits… and waits… and waits.
Waiting is the scourge of the traveler. In dreadful waiting rooms all over the world, lonely men and women are waiting for the bus, the train, the plane, that will take them home. Once in a while, a traveler will lose patience and board whatever bus, train, plane, is about to leave. When waiting kills the soul, who cares about home? As Xiao-Jun reveals to Xiao-Ting the true nature of his friendship with Li Chiao, he does not care anymore: whatever hope he may have had of finding his way home has vanished with her. The home he once believed he would build with his wife was a dream; the pain he is now inflicting joylessly on her is reality. The dream is lost. Whatever he might say, it will not be retrieved. Xiao-Ting asks him to leave. He does.
Only one place is left for him to go: the place where it all began… This is where he goes. On stepping inside his auntie's apartment, Xiao-Jun is confronted with Fate's cruel indifference as he finds Rosie (who lately had been unwell) dead, her body still warm, slumped on a chair. Life does not care for dreamers and madwomen. She lived and died alone. Having lost everyone he held dear to his heart within twenty-four hours, he is himself, in Hong Kong that could not care less, a man alone… and empty. Yet, he finds some solace in discovering, amidst Rosie's personal belongings, mementos contradicting the common belief that her past, her dreams, her hopes, had been no more than exercises in futility. To have been loved and to have loved is all that really matters. Life is but a journey. Man is but a migrant. Memories of faces and places are in the end all that is left. In the letter he writes to Xiao-Ting to bid her adieu, Xiao-Jun concludes by suggesting that the failure of their marriage, whatever she may believe, broke his heart too. To leave is to die. Yet somehow, to die is to live.
Xiao-Jun now lives in New York. He is once again a new migrant, albeit a jaded one. Unbeknownst to him, Li Chiao and Pao have ended up in the same city. Theirs is a life of exile. Millions of souls live and die every day, here and elsewhere. Years roll on. Existence is precarious, yet enduring. Like a song by a deceased singer. The taste of sugar…
You embark upon your journey, suitcase full of disappointments. This is your plight. As the train leaves the platform, you settle down uncomfortably on the hard seat that is your only throne. You are the king of a desolate kingdom. Yet, you are not alone. Mindful of other passengers, you tighten your grip on the piece of luggage resting on your knees. Your sorry treasure: a broken heart sealed in a box. Soon, the train is speeding along what appears to you to be an inhospitable countryside. The landscape through the window becomes a blur under your empty gaze. You feel estranged in this world of motion yet somehow, you are vaguely aware that this is where you belong. Intimation of home, as you catch your own reflection in the compartment's window. Presently, the gentle rocking motion of the carriage lulls you into a sense of peace almost: you are falling asleep. You perceive more than you see the fleeting smiles on the lips of your fellow travelers as the wretched suitcase you carried for so long slips from your relaxed grip. Slowly, infinitely slowly, your head slumps sideways toward the shoulder of the person next to you. Sleep tight. Do not worry. There is plenty of time. The journey is never-ending. This is your plight. This is your life. Dream well.
Also worthy of mention for their contribution to the success of the film are Kristy Yeung, touching as the young and pretty wife unwillingly hurt by Xiao-Jun, Irene Tsu who lends the endearing Rosie a dignified presence, and last but not least, Eric Tsang who in the role of Pao demonstrates once again that he is one of the best character actor currently working in Hong Kong.
Not surprisingly, Comrades, Almost A Love Story has received many accolades. It won the Golden Space Needle Award for the best film of the year at the 23rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival and swept the 16th Annual Hong Kong Film Award ceremony by winning awards in nine out of twelve categories: best picture, director, screenplay, actress, supporting actor, cinematography, art direction, costume & makeup design, and original film score. Beyond all this, however, Comrades, Almost A Love Story's greatest achievement remains in its poignant depiction of love and affection in the strange and foreign land where hopes and dreams are so often thwarted, yet where we persist in hoping and dreaming: our only world.
Of interest to the filmbuff is the appearance of Christopher Doyle (To Ho-Fung), the most sought after cinematographer in Hong Kong, as an English teacher whose prostitute girlfriend contracts AIDS.