My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, 1989)

“Now no one owes anything to anyone” a petty gangster ironically states on completing an errand for a friend in Patrick Tam’s heroic bloodshed off-shoot My Heart is that Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢). As the name perhaps implies, Tam’s film is less brotherhood than tragic romance as the fatalism of the noirish gangster world ruled by debt if not by honour conspires against love, not only romantic but filial and brotherly, in its infinite web of violence and futility.

Pinching a classic noir narrative, the picture opens in a cheerful waterside tavern run by former gangster Uncle Cheung (Kwan Hoi-Shan) where carefree gambler Rick (Kenny Bee) is in love with the old man’s daughter Lap (Joey Wong Cho-Yee) who works behind the bar. Uncle Cheung thinks he’s escaped the triad world, but the past is not done with him. Approached by local tough guy Law (Gam Lui), Uncle Cheung is made an offer he can’t refuse to help smuggle Law’s son (Cheung Tat-ming) to Hong Kong from the mainland. He asks Rick to pitch in as the driver and recruits corrupt cop Tang (Ng Man-tat) to help him get past the checkpoints. But Law’s kid is chatterbox, excited to be in Hong Kong and eagerly boring everyone with his future plans to become a famous singer. Unwisely he drops his father’s name and rouses Tang’s interest. Tang makes the gang pull off at a rest stop so he can strong arm Uncle Cheung into ringing Law to up his pay, but the loudmouth kid jumps the gun, literally, and gets himself killed. Tang turns on Rick and Uncle Cheung to clear up loose ends but Rick kills him, escaping with Uncle Cheung and leaving the old lady at the rest stop to clean up the mess. Left with no choice but to flee, the trio arrange passage to the Philippines but Uncle Cheung is snatched by Law before they can leave. Lap is forced to make a deal with rival kingpin Godfather Shen (Michael Chan Wai-man) to save her dad, putting Rick on the boat with a promise to meet him later but knowing that she will likely never escape Shen’s grasp. 

Six years pass, during which Lap becomes Shen’s right-hand woman entertaining wealthy Japanese businessmen in his swanky club as a singer and hostess. Consumed by guilt and remorse in knowing his daughter continues to pay the price for his mistake, Uncle Cheung has become a drunken liability while Lap is lost in romantic melancholy, mooning over the ruined love of her youth and dreaming that some day Rick may return and take her away from all this. Meanwhile, innocent rookie (confusingly also named) Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has fallen in love with her, captivated by her sadness and the futility of her life with Shen. Of course, Rick, having become a hit man, eventually returns leading to a confrontation not just with Shen but with the triad world itself. 

In the gangster universe, everyone owes something to someone. Debt is a kind of currency, and every bargain accrues its particular kind of interest. Lap is forced to sacrifice herself to save the men she loves by trading the only currency she has, her body, knowing that in doing so she destroys the possibility of a happy romantic future with Rick in order to keep him safe. Six years later she thinks she’s paid her debt to Shen, he has plenty of other women what difference can keeping her captive make? But that’s not the way the gangster world works. Shen merely gifts her to the psychotic underling who propositioned her on their first meeting and moments earlier had tried to betray his boss by raping her. Only Cheung, pure hearted and naive, is uncorrupted by the venal cruelty of the triad world, consumed by a truly selfless love that sees him determined to help Lap escape and save her future with Rick. 

This selfless love, however, eventually creates another debt in the moral dilemma faced by the lovers who know that if they escape alone they leave Cheung at the mercy of Shen while to return spells certain death. Co-shot by Christopher Doyle, Tam’s moral universe is lit by the red-tinted glow of the neo-noir, a dizzying yet melancholy world of violence and futility in which freeze frames and ethereal dissolves hint at the transient meaninglessness of the triad life where love and death go hand in hand while betrayal is an ever present companion. Only those sufficiently uncorrupted by the moral duplicities of an increasingly bankrupt existence are permitted to survive, but even so emerge beaten, wounded, and pale with loss literally at sea perpetual exiles without home or harbour.


Original trailer (Dialogue free, contains major spoilers)