A self-indulgent journal of my obsession with Hong Kong cinema.
One of my favorite scenes in the 1987 film “Double Fixation” (意亂情迷) takes place on a rooftop. The villain is chasing the heroine, and behind them, a gigantic neon red “Kodak” sign illuminates the night. Only when I revisited the movie this week did I realize it had to be sponsored: apart from the blatant neon namedrop, the storyline essentially hangs by a thread on a roll of Kodak film.
I say “hangs by a thread” because this MacGuffin is practically the only thing holding the plot together. The movie opens with a dedication to Hitchcock, and roughly reenacts the plot of “Vertigo.” Jacky Cheung plays the Jimmy Stewart character, and Cherie Chung is Kim Novak. Jacky, a photographer, is asked to take pictures of a mysterious crystal ball explicitly said to “contain a big secret.” When the film is ready, he discovers that his employer has been murdered, and the crystal ball smashed. The only remaining trace of the secret is hence recorded on the Kodak film, now the desired object of the villains, and the rest of the film revolves around their various attempts to obtain it.
After they somehow fail to take the film from Jacky by force, they bring out Cherie. Big spoiler alert — just as in “Vertigo,” she is an actress hired by the villains, here with the aim of somehow getting the film through a mix of deceit and seduction. In short, she ends up faking her death, after which the villains discover she has won them the wrong film-roll: this one is full of photos that Jacky took of her. She flees to San Francisco, the “Vertigo” spot, in an attempt to start anew as her old self, only to run into Jacky again, who’s there on a work trip. They grow close, but Cherie’s ghost hangs in the air.
I want to take a pause. I don’t know if the summary above is as laborious to read as it was to write, but what I’m hoping to demonstrate is that the story is a bit all over the place. “Vertigo,” frankly, did not survive the adaptation, and became painfully ridden with awkward dialogues and plot holes.
What I wish even more to clarify at this point is that, despite all the mean comments I’ve made, and might go on to make about this movie… I actually really like it. In fact, I would venture to say that what “doesn’t work” about the movie is exactly what makes it work for me.
Let’s backtrack. It was 1987, the year Jacky Cheung had his debut solo concert in the prestigious Hong Kong Coliseum. He was famous, but still fresh-faced, and placed next to Cherie Chung’s femme fatale, the “Vertigo” dynamic, on which the original story’s tragedy depends, is completely reversed. Jacky may sometimes make a decent noir hero, but he is by no means a Hitchcock hero. In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart is the one giving Kim Novak stage directions, grooming and molding her to resemble his obsessive, fictional ideal. Kim, on the other hand, seems to love him too much to resist. If the Jimmy Stewart hero is predatory, Jacky’s pursuit of Cherie can only be described as puppy-like. His desire for her is instinctive, almost pure: no agendas, no demands, sometimes not even hope.
And Cherie — now back to her old name, Jacqueline — as if attempting to reconcile with the shadow of Kim Novak, almost single-handedly takes on the narrative burden of their relationship. In San Francisco, the more they spend time with each other, the more Jacky learns to leave the memory of Cherie behind, and to love the person in front of him for who she is. Jacqueline is the one latching onto the acting role in which she first encountered Jacky. She begins toying with the one-sided glass hanging between them, impersonating Cherie’s mannerisms, going as far as dressing up as her and repeating the same lines they had exchanged. When she finally shows up in the very same dress that Cherie had worn, Jacky brushes the deceit aside, saying he has only one thing to ask from her: “Could I not be your younger brother anymore?” When Jaqueline was Cherie, she kept saying that Jacky reminds her of her younger brother. Now, Jacqueline nods yes, the artificial tie is broken, and they fall softly, quietly, into romance.
Given all this, I think it’s no wonder that this movie, with “Vertigo” as its blueprint, strikes me as awkward. In San Francisco, when Jacky sees Jaqueline as herself for the first time, he only looked up to spot her because he thought someone was calling his name — it was Jacqueline’s roommate calling her “Jacky” on the street. Their matching names are significant, indicating that they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, there is no real conflict between them. Their fears and frustrations are only borrowed from their American predecessors.
The villains, then, are the only remaining force keeping them apart. Soon after Jacqueline reveals her identity, they dutifully kidnap her, resuming the Kodak chase. The mysterious film roll never meant much to Jacky, and he does not hesitate to give it up for Jacqueline. Jacqueline, however, runs off with the film, in a final gesture to complete the narrative arc. Mirroring “Vertigo,” in which Jimmy forces Kim to climb the traumatic tower (from which she falls and dies from an absurd accident, but ultimately as a victim of Jimmy’s obsessive streak), Jacqueline, with neither help nor nudge from Jacky, runs to the rooftop with the Kodak neon sign. After a genre-obligatory fight scene, both Jacqueline and her pursuer fall off the roof.
I hold my breath. Jacky is at Jacqueline’s side, as she seems to be saying her last words. I’d learned the hard way that Hong Kong cinema of this era, while often generous with happy endings, does not hesitate to deal heavy blows out of the blue. Could it be that “Double Fixation” converges with its source material at this final conjuncture?
The suspense is suddenly broken. Patrol cars, an ambulance, and reporters crowd in, and the scene explodes with chatter. Miraculously, happily, Jacqueline’s eyes open, and someone pushing the stretcher tells Jacky that she’ll be ok. The villains have taken their cue, and disappeared. The crowd rolls away, the stage is cleared, and Jacky reaches for the Kodak box, stuck in a tree branch from the fall. All is quiet when he opens the box, and the roll of film within glitters like a string of diamonds. An inter-title follows, which explains: “He realized that the secret in the film was only a device to bring their fates together.”
It was this moment, arguably the height of the movie’s cheesiness, the culmination of its narrative failings, et cetera et cetera, that dispelled all my misgivings. It gave me what I never knew I needed — a kind of closure to what happened in “Vertigo.” And it gave me exactly what I was looking for — a backdrop against which to see Jacky Cheung and Cherie Chung play out a sweet, simple, yet reasonably eventful romance. Why should I also expect it to be pristine, prestigious or perfect?