You might feel wary of But Always as soon as a title card announces that the love story’s first scene takes place in 2001 New York.
Snow Zou’s film is steeped in a particularly saccharine nostalgia from the moment it cuts back to 1976 Beijing, and there’s only one reason why an instantly maudlin romance would be building toward that particular time and place. Anran (Gao Yuanyuan) narrates her tale via sentimental voiceover, explaining how she and Zhao Yongyuan (Nicholas Tse) met as children; But Always jumps back and forth in time and space several times over, with each separation and reconnection implying that these two are fated to be together in one way or another.
The film is endlessly derivative, even including a Once Upon a Time in America-aping shot of a lovers’ quarrel in front of the Manhattan Bridge, which wouldn’t be a problem if it managed to be affecting. But it’s undone by the cavity-inducing treacliness — “Is it love or torture?” asks one melodramatic musical cue — and a ham-fisted script.
It’s possible that there’s a worse movie tangentially related to 9-11 than But Always, though I don’t advise seeking one out.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2014