Ah, straight romance. The bedrock of so many art forms. Speaking as a big-time queer, I sometimes have to swallow my bile and appreciate a film like Romancing in Thin Air for what it is rather than, let’s say, what I’d prefer it to be. This is an undeniably sweet movie, with the tenderest of hearts. I still felt at a remove from it, though, at least until the ending.
The problem, by the way, is not a lack of romantic inclination on my end. I’m a swooner. I’ve been known to melt at the slightest show of affection. I love loving and being loved. But part of me found the relationship here too rote to really feel. The lovelorn movie star who escapes the press in a rural motel, the closed-off widow who pines for her long-missing husband, the latter’s frozen heart to be warmed by the former. Of course the woman was one of the man’s original fan club members. Of course the man is an alcoholic and must be nursed back to sobriety. It all just struck me as too pat, too by-the-numbers. They’re archetypes more than they’re real people. They just felt too engineered.
Things do start to come together by the end. The plasticity of the central characters is recontextualized when the actor, Michael Liu, makes a film about the tragic story of the woman, Sue, and her late husband. In his version, Sue’s husband survives his ordeal and reconciles with her as Michael looks on bittersweetly. Suddenly the plasticine nature of these characters makes more sense. We’re meant to take this as not just a story but a direct emotional provocation, just as Michael’s film is meant as a direct message to Sue. It feels like the film confessing its intent to emotionally manipulate. That’s all well and good, but it’s not like romantic dramas have to be so cynical. Plenty are genuinely moving without such a manufactured air.
It’s a shame, because I think Johnnie To does really good work here. The scenes near the end of Sue’s silhouette against the fictionalized version of herself projected on the movie screen are so powerful that they made me wish I liked the entire movie more. Sue’s friends Teeny and Beauty, superfans of Michael, are delightful to watch. And the romantic motorcycle rides made me think of His Motorbike, Her Island, and whenever that’s happening you know something’s going right. I wanted to like Romancing in Thin Air. But every time I thought I found something to latch onto, the film slipped away from me. I don’t think it’s a bad film. I just didn’t really care for it.