By Thomas M. Puhr.

Violent, sensual, and at times poetic….”

Kani Releasing continues to expose Western audiences to unsung masterpieces of Asian cinema, and their latest – a restoration of Patrick Tam’s violent, sensual, and at times poetic My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (Sat sau woo dip mung, 1989) – is one of their best to date.

The Hong Kong New Wave actioner begins with a deliciously moody title sequence: As flames engulf a bouquet of white roses, Anita Mui’s “Zhuang Shi De Yan Lei” plays on the soundtrack. “The chill of absence lingers in my sheets,” she croons. “All the love is gone, condemned to death.” Later, when one of the protagonists sings this song in a bar, we realize her life has become all too similar to these heartbroken lyrics.

Kenny Bee and Joey Wong star as Rick and Lap, two star-crossed lovers. When we first meet them, they’re enjoying a carefree youth. Rick frequents the bar where Lap works for her father, “Uncle Cheung” (Hoi-San Kwan). He shows off his skills at drinking games, gifts Lap a golden bracelet, and makes half-joking gestures toward marrying her one day. They’re young, in love, and – naturally – think they have all the time in the world.

But things quickly go off the rails when local gangster Law Man-Shing (Lui Gam) pressures Uncle Cheung to help smuggle his teenaged son into Hong Kong. Uncle Cheung recruits Rick as the driver, and – with a shady, corrupt policeman named Inspector Tang (Man-Tat Ng) in tow – they head out to complete the job. One double-cross later and the kid and Tang are dead, Uncle Cheung has been kidnapped by a very pissed off Shing, and Rick is frantically trying to flee the country before he ends up on the chopping block.

It’s here that My Heart Is That Eternal Rose takes an unexpected turn. Rather than being an impassive love interest, Lap emerges as the true hero. In exchange for getting her father off the hook and ensuring Rick’s safe passage to the Philippines, she agrees to be the kept woman of another, even more dastardly villain: Godfather Shen (Wai-Man Chan). Not knowing about the terrible sacrifice his love has made, Rick leaves Hong Kong with promises that they’ll reunite soon. The foreboding title card that follows – “6 years later” – tells us otherwise.

If you think I’ve given away too much, then keep in mind that all of the above happens before the 30-minute mark. Cowriters Koon-Chung Chan and Kan-Cheung Tsang’s screenplay moves fast and furious, with enough material in this breathless first act to fuel a feature-length film alone. Few movies – especially actioners – can maintain such a pace for their entire runtime without giving viewers whiplash; the writers smartly pump the brakes after Rick and Lap reunite, allowing the duo’s central romance some room to breathe.

Two action sequences – both bloody shootouts – punctuate the proceedings, and there are enough slow-motion squib explosions to satisfy most genre hounds.”

The intervening years have hardened our heroes: Rick, now working as a contract killer, is shown ruthlessly executing a gangster who has turned informant for the government; living with the unbearable knowledge of what his daughter has agreed to in order to save his life, Uncle Cheung has become a desperate alcoholic; and Lap, trapped under Shen’s thumb, endures her dire situation with an icy stoicism. But her burning desire to escape is rekindled when Rick, back in Hong Kong for said hit, reenters the picture.

Co-cinematographers Christopher Doyle and David Chung elegantly express a shift from youthful innocence to world weariness; soft, hazy earth tones at Uncle Cheung’s bar give way to harsh neon lights at Shen’s club (where Uncle Cheung, having lost his business, now drowns his sorrows). When Lap, goaded by Shen and his drunken cohorts, takes the stage to sing a pained rendition of “Zhuang Shi De Yan Lei,” Tam bathes her in deep, vibrant blues. No wonder a still from this scene graces the new restoration’s one-sheet. It’s a beautiful moment: sexy, sorrowful, and unbearably cool.

My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (1989)

The film offers perhaps one too many side characters in its latter half. Two of Shen’s men – the malicious Lai (Gordon Liu) and sympathetic Cheung (Tony Leung) – do little more than lust for Lap, who seems to unintentionally bewitch every man in her orbit. Both performances are strong – especially that of Liu, who perfectly embodies that spineless crony you love to hate – but they distract from Lap and Rick’s romance, which deserves an unwavering spotlight. Their love is so believable that I only wish I could’ve seen more evidence of it.

Two action sequences – both bloody shootouts – punctuate the proceedings, and there are enough slow-motion squib explosions to satisfy most genre hounds. Those looking for extended set pieces, however, may be disappointed; Tam keeps the action tight and lean, largely favoring brutal efficiency over grandiose pyrotechnics (he does love a good freeze-frame, though, ala John Woo in his heyday). Ultimately, My Heart Is That Eternal Rose is more romance-action than action-romance. Which is fine by me; I would’ve happily watched 90 minutes of Lap singing in that dreamy blue nightclub.

A new 2K restoration of My Heart Is That Eternal Rose opens March 22 at New York’s Metrograph Theater for an exclusive one-week theatrical run.

Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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