Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai star in Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996). Courtesy of United Filmmakers Organization

Find it at 5th Ave: Comrades: Almost a Love Story

Exploring the tricky relationship between culture, politics and emotion

Find It At 5th Ave. is a recurring column that reviews, previews and explores running and upcoming films at PSU’s independent movie theater, 5th Avenue Cinema.


This weekend, PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema will be screening Comrades: Almost a Love Story, a Hong Kong film directed by Peter Chan. This 1996 film follows two Chinese mainlanders who travel to Hong Kong—Li Xiao-Jun (Leon Lai), a naive Northerner hoping to get rich so that he can provide for his fiancée, and Li Qiao (Maggie Cheung), an entrepreneur and opportunist who seeks financial gain through taking advantage of mainlanders like themselves. 


Alone in the big city, the two end up having a passionate love affair, resulting in a mix of emotions. With Li Xiao-Jun racked with guilt and Li Qiao consistently finding herself in tricky situations, does the film’s title refer to the failure of their love, or the peculiarity of their story?


Each 5th Ave. staff member gets to choose two movies to project per term. This week’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story was chosen by Owen Peterson, a business student at PSU. Peterson described his pick as a culturally nuanced one. 


“It kind of goes through the intricacies of the cultural differences between Hong Kong and China,” he said.


Over the last few decades, the relations between the people of Hong Kong and China have been quite tense. China originally ruled over Hong Kong until 1842, and Hong Kong has undergone a complicated series of exchanges during the last couple centuries.


“I’m unfortunately sort of uninformed,” Peterson said, but summarized the situation as “one of those things—from what I understand—where it’s fighting over territory that a certain group of people have ownership over, and there’s disagreements of how that piece of land is being handled by governing bodies and so there’s a lot of anarchy that happens.”


Since the early 2000s, agitation has grown between Chinese Mainlanders and Hongkongers, with political implications like the Individual Visit Scheme—a system requiring Chinese mainlanders to have a business visa to travel to Hong Kong. 


Although this film precedes intense events like these, the apprehensions are still present. Peterson said he believes that the film does “a good job in representing the political differences and tension in the area.”


Peterson said he did a lot of reading on the subject before choosing the film. 


“I wanted to make sure that it’s a good depiction of that culture because it’s very easy to be extremely jaded like ‘this is what love looks like’ from my United States, male perspective of things,” he said. “It’s a completely different culture that I’m, in a way, projecting—well, literally.”


Even though Hong Kong has had to endure a lot of political drama over the past couple centuries, it’s not a subject that many people in the U.S. are aware of. 


“I remember, in my honors class here during my freshman year, we had a discussion on [Hong Kong] and I had no idea what it was!” Peterson said. “There’s not a lot of movies, at least that I’m aware of, that discuss the Hong Kong-China conflict and it’s something that’s been intense for a really long time.”


Although viewers may be able to sense the political tension, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the film is primarily a romance. 


“Romance may be the main genre people understand it for,” Peterson said. “I mean, it’s in the name—and I think that’s probably intentional to get more people to see it.”


5th Avenue Cinema is known for choosing foreign films with more diverse perspectives than many students are used to. The theater had a podcast from March 2020 until Aug. 2021, where they discussed movies to make up for their inability to present films during the pandemic.


“In our podcasting time, we watched and talked about a few Asian American films and, even in that one [podcast episode], it explained a lot of the differences between how people are able to express something as universal as love differently,” Peterson said. 


Peterson encouraged people to be open-minded. The choice of movie was intentional, as Peterson said he hoped people will now be informed about the conflict, because the “news here is always momentous,” looking for the next big thing—and avoids “things that don’t involve the U.S.”


“Some people don’t like foreign language movies—like I had to convince my parents for the longest time to get into it, because you’re missing out on so much good stuff that you wouldn’t see,” he said. “Honestly, the stuff that is really a game changer that influences everything here was done 10 years ago, somewhere else.”


For curious readers looking to see the film for themselves, Comrades: Almost a Love Story is playing this weekend, at 5th Avenue Cinema, Friday–Sunday.