A Moment of Romance is responsible for many a Hong Kong Cinema cliché.
Andy Lau (Luu Duc Hoa) is Wah Dee, a tough triad member who gets drawn into a spiraling circle of events. He’s picked by fellow gangmember Trumpet (Tommy Wong) to be the getaway driver in a jewel heist, but things don’t go as planned. The getaway is chaotic, and Dee takes a rich student, Jojo (Wu Chien-Lien), hostage to make good his escape. Trumpet wants her dead, as she’s seen their faces, but Dee lets her live, saying that he’ll be responsible for her. Presumably, Dee believes she’ll let them off in exchange for her life, but he doesn’t even posit such an exchange. He merely puts her on his bike, takes her home, and lets her go. He’s like a Chinese Clint Eastwood, only he rides bikes and looks like Andy Lau.
Unfortunately, things are not that easy. The cops find Jojo’s purse at the crime scene and drag her in for questioning. She still won’t identify the robbers, but Trumpet doesn’t want to take any chances. Dee rescues her again from Trumpet’s clutches. With an internal gang war brewing, Trumpet wants Dee dead. And the cops (led by Lau Kong) want him brought in. And, Jojo wants his affections.
The “good girl loves bad boy” scenario is far from new. But A Moment of Romance is far more than a teenybopper romantic fantasy. Dee is a through-and-through triad, meaning he’s not averse to violence or criminal activity. But there’s a basic morality within him that prevents him from simply doing away with Jojo. His existence reveals itself to be one of resigned self-loathing. He’s not happy with his life, but sees no real exit. It’s that internal angst that drives him to reject Jojo at first, and even to mistreat her in hopes that she’ll leave. Eventually he accepts her love, but the choice is not make frivolously.
Not that A Moment of Romance (Phong Hoa Giai Nhan) is devoid of the grandoise cinematic flourishes that characterized most Hong Kong films of the day. There’s a large helping of slow motion, romanticized visuals and overblown Cantopop tunes that line the way. But Benny Chan manages to use all of the above without alienating his audience. The core emotions that the film mines are so innately compelling that they’re not lost beneath bombastic montages or sudden flashes of gangland violence. The actors neither overplay nor underplay the material, and inhabit their roles perfectly.
None of the above would matter. However, if it weren’t for the character of Wah Dee or Andy Lau’s performance. Saving, and even loving Jojo may reaffirm part of Dee’s humanity, but his decisions have believable and compelling consequences. The affirmation of Dee’s morality comes with a price, and only one outcome is truly possible. Andy Lau brings a righteous anger and hidden tenderness to an exceptional genre character. What’s so compelling about the character and the performance is that Wah Dee acts and doesn’t talk. The filmmakers go the character and action route in telling this story, and the result is far better than what you’d expect from this genre.