While Hong Kong filmmakers have a gift for action, they tend to overdo it in the melodrama department, at least when it comes to watching their films through Western eyes. Perhaps the worst Hong Kong film I've seen to date is Jackie Chan's Heart of Dragon (1985), which features Jackie caring for his developmentally disabled brother (played by goofball Sammo Hung, who co-directed). All the heartstring tugging made me want to claw my eyes out. Or take another look at a masterpiece like John Woo's The Killer and you'll see an operatic hugeness to the emotional scenes -- especially between men -- that an American would never even dream, much less dare. These folks have an extremely high tolerance level for sentimentality; it takes an enormous amount before their sap detectors begin going off.

The same goes for action director and one-man HK film industry Johnny To (also known as "Johnnie To Kei-Fung"). To was a fairly minor director during Hong Kong's exciting late 1980s/early 1990s heyday, when imported films began to tantalize American viewers bored with big explosions and Vietnam rescue flicks. His biggest credit was as co-director on the exceptional supernatural superhero movie The Heroic Trio (1992). But after the 1997 handover to China, when most other filmmakers withdrew or abandoned ship, To flourished and eventually became the country's most successful and exciting filmmaker. His action hits included: The Mission (1999), Running Out of Time (1999), Help!!! (2000), Fulltime Killer (2001), Running Out of Time 2 (2003), Running on Karma (2003), Breaking News (2004), Election (2005), Triad Election (2006) and Exiled (2007), along with some 40 other films.



But even with a track record like that, no one wants to be pigeonholed, and so To has attempted to break free with one of the aforementioned soap operas, the new Linger, which had its North American premiere this week at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. Fortunately, To's vast experience and finely honed skills help him occasionally step over the puddles of goop. The other thing that helps is that Linger moves beyond the standard romance claptrap and into the supernatural realm, which will help make it a reasonable date movie for lovestruck girls and geeky guys. (Although hardcore HK fans appear to be less than enchanted with the movie so far.)

Li Bingbing (also seen as the badass, white-haired fighting chick in The Forbidden Kingdom) stars as Yan, a student who has barely begun a relationship with a new boyfriend Dong (Vic Zhou). The trouble is that Dong hasn't really made things clear with his old girlfriend. When the girls cause a scene at school (Yan wears Dong's jersey to class, right in front of the other girl), Dong confronts Yan. She drives away, and he follows in his motorcycle. He rides up alongside and demands to know if she loves him or not. Before she can answer, there's an accident and Dong is gone. Three years later, Yan has become a law clerk, but takes prescription drugs to help deal with the pain. On her doctor's advice, she decides to go off her meds, but as soon as she does, she begins seeing Dong's ghost.

His first appearance is a shocker, suddenly lying beside her, shirtless and with his stitched-up chest cavity exposed. After that, he shows up wearing his much friendlier basketball jersey, and even a suit. They begin taking night time walks together, and seeing other (friendly) ghosts. Dong even takes Yan to a spectral basketball game! This is nice stuff, but it's thin and can't cover an entire movie's running time, so To and writer Ivy Ho (Comrades, Almost a Love Story) concoct a preposterous subplot that spins more and more out of control. In her law firm, Yan aids the defense of a juvenile delinquent named Wo (Wong You-Nam). He becomes interested in her, but his affections generally translate into creepy violence and stalking. Wo finds out about the deceased Dong and tries to take over Dong's life, even becoming a boarder in Dong's father's house. To and Ho never really connect this subplot with the main ghost story, other than Wo unwittingly repeating the same actions that caused Dong's accident.

The performances leave a bit to be desired. Vic Zhou is a pop singer and model making his acting debut here, and he's perfectly serviceable, but not terribly charismatic. Li fares a little better, but the real treat here is the return of Lam Suet -- a veteran of more than twenty (!) Johnny To films -- in a tiny role as Yan's roommate. (Lam makes you long for a gutsier, Marty-type romance.) Aside from that, To uses strikingly clear and vivid compositions full of nature, architecture and light to help his film breathe. He includes many lovely night shots (Yan loves to jog through the park at night); the movie is airy and uncluttered and relaxed. To also wraps things up in less than 89 minutes, unwilling to let this slight material drag on too long. But the main reason Linger works at all is that To knows all about pacing and rhythms from making action films, and he is able to adapt that to romantic melodrama and to avoid too much of any one ingredient.