A melancholic air emanates from the opening credits of Stanley Kwan’s second feature, Love Unto Waste, as the camera traces across the numerous locations the leading characters will inhabit. It’s almost as lackadaisical and apathetic as the three leads, especially during the first half. Tony Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Billie Yuen (Irene Wan) don’t exactly have a perfect meet-cute for the kind the romantic piano score of Violet Lam. In fact, celebrating his 25th birthday, a drunken Tony ends up vomiting on Billie’s lap and enacts a scene of embarrassing chaos across the lounge they are partying at.
An exchange of business cards a call later, and Tony is whisked into the life of this Paris returned model and her equally talented but struggling friends. They are Taiwanese ex-pats and seemingly older than her; Liu Suk-ping (Elaine Jin) is an aging actress on the downslide. Meanwhile, Chao Su-ling (Tsai Chin) is a singer at the same lounge, harboring her own heartbreak and secrets. Kwan threads a vibe of an introspective hangout film more akin to the New Taiwanese Wave than the Second Hong Kong Wave he belongs to. Story and Screenplay writer Lai Kit positions Tony as a Casanova in the center of intricately tied relationships between the three women. Yet before anything untoward can happen, the story takes a sharp turn when Chao is found murdered in her home and her riches stolen.
Enter Detective Lan (Chow Yun-fat), whose investigative methods probe at the three remaining friends, eating at their muted grief and horror over the incident. Instead, what could easily have been a stark tonal shift becomes an added layer for Kwan’s naturalistic direction. Death is used to explore further the malaise that has set into the very self-absorbed lives of his characters. Much like age, time plays a key factor from the onset as the edit naturally shifts without indication over days to months, developing the bonds between the friends. Their situation is given reason to fester when the scenario turns into a complicated love triangle, with Lan hanging just on the edge of their misery.
The murder almost acts as an excuse not just for Lan but also for Kwan to get closer to these people and examine the manner in which youth is so easily wasted on the young. Lan’s sadness regarding his failed marriage and impending doom makes him a ghostly figure haunting the trio as they navigate life without one of their own while mired in their problems. That theme of a lost generation and what, on the surface, seems like a romanticism of it is vital to Kwan’s work here. In the latter half, when the film shifts to Taiwan, it further explores the divide between a Westernized Hong Kong and the culture it leaves behind. The characters, particularly the women, chase fleeting fame while Tony makes his way selfishly through them in the name of love, oblivious to their desires.
In that sense, each of the performers delivers something magical. An early role for Tony Leung, his work ironically echoes a prototype of the Wong Kar-wai (a fellow Second Wave master) hero, especially Leslie Cheung’s Yuddy from Days of Being Wild. Irene Wan exudes the calmest detached confidence, even in the most dramatic confrontation of Tony’s infidelity; her tantrum washes away in a sea of empathy, reflecting layers on a very closed-out character. Their break-up scene never directly addresses the point, yet her relaxing demeanor relieves the feelings of their grief. Elain Jin, who almost comes off early on as a caricature, straddles the two tones of the narrative beautifully as she speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin. Despite her limited role, Tsai Chin leaves a lasting impact, haunting the film’s proceedings.
The film, though, ultimately belongs to Chow Yun-fat, who injects the narrative with charisma and danger. It’s the fun he has early on playing with the trio amid the investigation, ultimately giving his somber revelations the right punch. His desperation to get close to them and a taste of their youth adds a layer of tragedy to the final twist in his fate. When the characters approach the crossroads of separation, one can see that, despite their age; they have, in a sense, experienced a life, perhaps lost a bit too much too soon.
After tense camaraderie between the two men, Tony and Lan meet one final time on his deathbed. With all that has passed, Lan reveals his genuine reason for interfering in their lives and forcing them to introspect on Chao’s tragic end. Certain of his death due to Cancer, Lan wished to hang around these three youths and enjoy. Much like him, they, too, were wasting their lives.
In return, Tony discusses how he has spent his life traveling, sleeping with, and loving many women, seemingly having lived an entire life despite being 25. Yet as they laugh over this, the question lingers what does he have left to show for it? Chao has passed away, Liu has aborted their child and settled in Taiwan, and Billie has just dumped him. Stanley Kwan leaves the closing credits lingering on the two friends chatting, another melancholic song by Chao drowning out their words. He also leaves the viewer with the question: is Tony’s life wasted for all the love he has lost, or is he living a full life, having lost in love?