Shangri-La, northwest Yunnan province, China, winter, the present day. After being dumped at the altar by his fiancee, Mainland actress Ding Yuanyuan (Gao Yuanyuan), after the sudden appearance of her first love Zhang Xing (Wang Baoqiang), Greater China megastar Michael Liu (Louis Koo) goes on an alcoholic bender and washes up at Deep Woods Hotel, a ranch-style guesthouse 3,800 metres up in the mountains. The place is run by Sau (Sammi Cheng), a onetime art student from Hong Kong who worked there while studying in China and fell for the place and its owner, Yang Xiaotian (Li Guangjie). Seven years ago, Xiaotian went into the vast forest surrounding the guesthouse to rescue a young boy and never returned. Hoping he is still alive, Sau continues to run the place with two assistants (Sun Jiayi, Yang Yi). Seeing a TV news report that Yuanyuan is to retire from acting to marry Zhang Xing, the lovelorn Michael tries to leave but crashes Sau's truck. After being rescued with the help of the local doctor (Tien Niu), he falls seriously ill with altitude sickness and stays on at Sau's guesthouse to recover. There he kicks the drink and discovers she was an early member years ago of his international fan club. The two bond. Meanwhile, Michael's manager, Barbara (Crystal Huang), is still anxiously trying to trace him. And one day, a raggedy rucksack belonging to Xiaotian is found in the forest, and Sau's hopes rise that her husband is still alive.
Though it's nominally set in China's Yunnan province, "Romancing in Thin Air" is a Johnnie TO movie that inhabits a special world of his and lead writer WAI Ka-fai's playful imagination. For a start, there's the cheeky Chinese title (literally, High-Altitude Romance II), which makes it look like a sequel to a film that never existed in the first place; then there are its broadly acted Mainland characters who come close to caricature without actually overstepping the line; and then there's the mountain forest setting and ranch-style guesthouse that could just as easily have been in the Canadian Rockies for all the "local" flavour they have.
It's often forgotten, especially by those who discovered him only after his career reinvention in the late '90s, that some 40% of To's directorial output has been either comedies or romantic dramas rather than gun-toting crime-twisters, and that some of his best work has been in those genres. Romancing is a straightfaced riff on Asian melodrama conventions and film-world cliches that works a treat for much of its length, as it collides two lovelorn characters (an alcoholic superstar and an introverted widow) in a remote, photogenic setting surrounded by a vast forest that looms like some Jungian expression of their emotional confusion. So far, so good. But then, halfway through, in a way very typical of Wai and co-writer YAU Nai-hoi , the script starts playing around with the audience's expectations by stirring life-imitating-art elements into the mix.
It's at that point that the movie starts to become a bit too clever for its own good and reveals the limitations of its two lead actors, both of whom have more charisma than depth. Louis KOO, here in his ninth To outing, is good in the early scenes as the jilted megastar who's on a giant bender but is less impressive after he sobers up; fellow Hong Konger, singer-actress Sammi CHENG, returning to the screen after her second lay-off, is fine in the subdued role of a raggedy-haired, grieving widow but doesn't bring anything special to the role that another actress couldn't have done in her place. Most importantly, there's none of the special chemistry that To drew from her in his mismatched rom-com "Needing You..." (2000), opposite Andy LAU.
The colour (and humour) in the very wintry movie is largely provided by the supports, especially '70s Taiwanese veteran TIEN Niu as a feisty local doctor, striking Mainland actress Crystal HUANG (The Woman Knight of "Mirror Lake" as the superstar's hard-arsed manager, and unknowns SUN Jiayi and YANG Yi as the widow's comically star-struck assistants. After her considerable role in To's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (2010), Mainland actress GAO Yuanyuan is just okay in what is essentially a cameo.
The pieces of the play-puzzle do add up in the end — including the "II" in the title — but not to any great effect. Viewers who've taken the opening half as a regular melodrama rather than a clever riff will feel confused in the second half by the lack of emotional meat to chew on, and To's straightforward, uninflected direction doesn't guide the audience in any way. If you're in on the joke, the later filmy twists will be diverting; but this isn't any kind of deep analysis of life vs. art vs. life, and it also isn't a full-blown romantic wallow like, say, To's "A Moment of Romance III" (1996).
Technically, the film is always a delight to watch, with To's regular team all seamlessly hitting their marks; and the whole production is never less than interesting. What the film lacks is some emotional oxygen to really engage the audience beyond a purely observational level.