BreakfastWhat do women want?

Turns out that sometimes it’s a melodramatic “Guilty Pleasure” from China. Who knew?!?

But Always is an epic story of star-crossed Beijing lovers played by lead actress Yuanyuan Gao (as “Anran”) and lead actor Nicholas Tse (as “Yongyuan”).

Gorgeous! Heart-breaking!! Set to a soundtrack showcasing a thousand and one strings!!!

Kudos to writer/director Snow Zou for breathing new life into the classic Hollywood Weepie genre from the Golden Years–and yes, I do mean that as a compliment. (JLH: 4/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.


But Always is writer/director Snow Zou’s old-school Hollywood romance from China. It’s gorgeous and weepy, with charismatic, beautiful stars and a score that transports you into a romantic despair. Speaking as a woman, But Always hits my soft spot at the intersection of star-crossed love and tragic destiny. So even though there were a couple of laughable moments, I loved But Always.

But Always is told from the point of view of “Anran” (Yuanyuan Gao), who starts by narrating the tragic events surrounding 9/11. The English subtitles read: New York City – 2001, and then immediately flash back to earthquake-stricken Bejing (1976). Young Anran’s parents have built a makeshift shack in the street, so they are surrounded by other families also too terrified by aftershocks to reenter their homes. But Anran is just a five-year-old at play… until her mother has to leave. Anran’s mother is a doctor, and she needs to leave with her emergency team. She gives Anran a stern look, telling her to take care of her father and be a good girl while she’s gone. Then mom dies in an accident, leaving Anran alone with her father.

Anran’s father doesn’t want her to be known as a motherless child (under the Chinese cloud of bad luck), so he moves her to another school far away. But being attractive and well cared for doesn’t make Anran any less lonely. She walks pert and alert but is always by herself, until a little boy named “Zhao” (Nicholas Tse) starts following her around. At first Anran tries to try to ignore Zhao, but she slowly starts drawing comfort from the fact she’s got a companion to relate to once she learns that Zhao is living with his grandmother because he lost both his parents in the earthquake.

So these two adorable little kids bond and grow into early adolescence. For years they’re good friends, depending on each other, and waiting together at the bus stop every day after school… until one day Zhao abruptly disappears. His grandmother has died, so his uncle comes to Bejing to take him to Quanzho. Zhao has no time to say goodbye to Anran. Anran stands alone at the bus stop; she looks up and down the street with no clue where he might be.

Eight more years pass. Anran and Zhao are now young adults. Zhao returns to Bejing to work in the marketplace with his uncle. One day, Anran comes by to shop and Zhao can tell it’s her by the rhythm of her walk. So he follows her, finds out where she goes to school, and begins lurking around until she finally spots him. Anran has done very well in school in the intervening years. Her father has told her that her mother dreamed she would attend school in the United States, so Anran has worked very hard, particularly on her English lessons. She passes her exams and is accepted at Columbia University just as her relationship with Zhao is heating up. What to do? Fate intervenes, and once again, Zhao disappears. Once again, Anran is alone; once again, her heart is broken. Anran leaves Bejing.

Years pass, and the lovers are reunited in Manhattan. This is no surprise. I knew they would be there on 9/11/01, I just didn’t know how my heart would swell during the big, wonderful love scene when they finally kiss. For a moment, I allow myself to believe in the possibility of happiness… but then… 9/11…

Yuanyuan Gao and Nicholas Tse are absolutely gorgeous as Anran and Zhao. As a kid, Zhao looks like a frog, but he turns into an incredibly charismatic man who is kind, tender, handsome, and successful. He is a dream come true–a classic poor boy in rags who is really a prince inside.

True, the plot twists are melodramatic, but so what. Ten years later it’s important to put 9/11 in context. Every country has its traumas. In But Always, Anran’s mother and Zhao’s parents are all lost in the cataclysmic Beijing earthquake of 1976. Equally important, But Always reminds Americans that when Al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, they effected the families of many nations. They attacked the World Trade Center, so it wasn’t just Americans who died. We all need to remember this.

But Always held my attention because I really came to care about these two people Anran and Zhao. I knew that–as star-crossed lovers–they probably weren’t headed towards a happy ending, but so what. Romeo and Juliet didn’t live happily ever after either, yet four hundred years or so after Shakespeare first created them, their love for each other still pierces our hearts.


Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/15/14)

Top Photo: Anran and Yongyuan find a moment of stolen happiness in her shabby Brooklyn apartment.

Bottom Photo: Just before she leaves for New York, Anran must tend to Yongyuan’s wounded forehead after thugs assault him in Beijing. OMG: What a handsome guy! “I’m melting!! I’m melting!!!” TeeHeeHee 🙂

Photo Credits: China Lion

Q: Does But Always pass the Bechdel Test?


Drama is focused on Anran’s love for Yongyuan, and even in the rare occasions when she does speak with another woman (e.g., when her boss tells Anran that she must agree to continue taking this handsome Chinese businessman on tours around NYC or lose her job as a guide), they are always talking about him.

Tags: Anran, But Always, Gao Yuanyuan, Jan Lisa Huttner, Nicholas Tse, Snow Zou, WomenArts, Yuanyuan Gao

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