Cherie Chung and Chow Yun-fat find love in exile in Mabel Cheung’s charming New York rom-com, An Autumn’s Tale (秋天的童話). Penned by Alex Law, Cheung’s breezy chronicle of love and handover anxiety is subtle and sophisticated romance for grownups finding its youthful heroine stepping into herself in stepping away from home springboarding from emotional heartbreak into personal growth while beginning to fall for her equally lost and hoplelessly diffident yet larger than life new city neighbour. 

After two years of patient saving, Jennifer (Cherie Chung Chor-hung) is finally heading to New York to reunite with hometown boyfriend Vincent (Danny Chan Pak-keung) and study acting in the city. Her mother has put her in touch with a distant relative who is apparently a former sailor turned big man in Chinatown nicknamed “Figurehead” (Chow Yun-fat) who’s agreed to pick her up from the airport and sort her out with a flat. What Jennifer hasn’t disclosed is that she hasn’t told Vincent she’s coming and plans to surprise him when he returns from a baseball game in Boston. When she arrives, however, she discovers not only that Figurehead has somewhat misrepresented his level of success but that Vincent is seeing someone else and places little value on their past relationship, viewing his hometown girlfriend as childish and unsophisticated now he’s a big city guy changed by his new environment but not for the better. 

Jennifer’s culture shock on arriving in late 80s New York is instantly apparent as “Figgy” takes her back to the rundown Chinatown slum where he is living to a flat which looks like no-one’s been up there in 20 years, still has a gas-operated refrigerator, and is filled with the last tenant’s abandoned belongings. Perhaps bearing out the realities of the international dream, Figgy has obviously been telling everyone back home how great his life is in New York and how well he’s been doing for himself while living aimlessly in the city spending his days drinking, gambling, and fighting paralysed by anxiety and too frightened to move forward. Even so he does his best to help Jennifer adjust to life in New York, helping her fix up the apartment and trying to be sympathetic after witnessing her brutal breakup with the no-good Vincent.

Then again, “We belong to two different worlds” she eventually reflects in trying to decide not only if she’s fallen in love with Figgy or he her but if he’s really got longterm potential. She says he makes her feel free, but as she becomes more used to life in New York and less afraid of its differences she grows eager to see the rest of the world while Figgy, 10 years older, claims he’s seen it all already and has no real desire to go anywhere anymore. To him, everything in New York is just an inferior version of something they already had in Hong Kong, broadway musicals are “yankee opera”, pizza is “yankee pancakes”, the music of Americana street musicians is “yankee tunes” that remind him of a Chinese funeral march. While he works in a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people, Jennifer gets a job at an upscale place going by the name “Big Panda” run by a sleazy friend of woman she babysits for that is intent on selling a Westernised idea of China to the locals. Trying to play the big shot in his ill-fitting suit, Figgy doesn’t even understand the menu or the extortionately priced itemised bill presented to him in English but recklessly throws $20 bills at the tip-happy waiter. His only dream is to open a small restaurant on a pier overlooking the ocean that Jennifer convinces him to name “Sampan” like the boat but also in honour of his English name, Samuel Pang. While Jennifer continues to move forward, Figgy remains diffident, too afraid to voice his feelings and consumed by a sense of under-confidence that leaves him unable to pursue either his dream or innocent love. 

To put it bluntly it’s the 33-year-old Figgy who is not really ready for serious romance while through her failed relationship with Vincent and growing experience of independent city living Jennifer is beginning to figure out what it is she wants out of life and out of love. Their romance can’t blossom until they meet each other as equals, Figgy finally pulling himself together and gaining the confidence to chase both love and his dreams. A beautifully understated, naturalistic romance with an ending to rival Comrades Almost a Love Story, An Autumn’s Tale is also love letter to the city of New York with all of its danger and possibility as two lost youngsters learn to find a home in each other while discovering the courage to become themselves.


An Autumn’s Tale screens at the BFI 25th January as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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