The Chan family portrait

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This is not the first film based on the story of Jackie Chan’s late parents. In 2003, Mabel Cheung directed the documentary, Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan and his Lost Family, about Chan’s parents and their search for his half siblings. In A Tale of Three Cities, Cheung returns with writing partner Alex Law to recreate the story of Chan’s parents as an epic romance. Having both been previously widowed with two kids, Fang Daolong (Sean Lau Ching-wan) and Chen Yuerong (Tang Wei) meet and fall in love amidst the Japanese occupation in Anhui, China. Through a series of unfortunate events, they are separated in Shanghai. The film depicts how they eventually find their way back to each other and reunite in Hong Kong.

As a period piece, history plays as an important role in the overarching love story, told during the Second World War and the rise of the Communist Party soon after. The film jumps between Yuerong’s journey to Hong Kong and the story of how they met. Having both lost their spouses during the Japanese Occupation, Daolong and Yuerong both fall into a nefarious means of making money to support their family. Daolong becomes a thug for the Nationalist Party and Yuerong sells opium. The desperate measures they take are some of the most interesting aspects of the film. It is unfortunate that this ends up taking a backseat to the love story once they meet.

What were once two people who’d do anything for their children became a couple who ignored the warnings of a Japanese air raid to sing folk songs to each other. After the fall of the Republic of China, Daolong goes on the run, leaving Yuerong as well as his two sons. Cheung and Law heighten the tension by including coincidences and missed connections between the two, including another love interest for Yuerong. It is to their credit that they are able to make the audience root for the couple, but knowing that the two must eventually reunite to have Jackie Chan does take away from the suspense quite a bit.

Perhaps it is out of respect for Jackie Chan that the criminal sides of both his parents were toned down quite a bit. His father’s involvement with a street gang is dropped entirely, and his mother’s opium smuggling and gambling history is glossed over quite a bit. To make up for this, Cheung created additional characters to take on the more controversial roles. The film also downplays the fact that both characters leave their own kids as they run from the Communist Party, something that would be hard to sympathize with in this day and age.

The time jumps are a bit disorienting at first. It takes some time figuring out where in the story each scene takes place. Luckily, Cheung is able to capture the essence of each of the cities quite well. The quiet landscape of Anhui and the bustling markets of Shanghai are both beautifully showcased. While overall Cheung plays it fairly safe and does not bring anything new to the genre, it is still an enjoyable experience and an interesting history lesson.

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