“My Prince Edward” begins with Fong (Stephy Tang) looking at a water turtle through a shop window. The turtle has flipped over and is struggling to right itself, which is the perfect, proleptic metaphor for Fong’s engagement to Edward (Chu Pak-hong).
The movie is marketed as a romantic comedy, but rather than conforming to its genre, “My Prince Edward” dismantles it. The film’s two titles, “My Prince Edward” and “金都,” which translates to “The Golden Plaza,” must be read with unflinching sarcasm. Edward is not a prince, nor is there much gold to be found in the shopping mall where Fong works. The film’s raison d’etre is to deliver a message of disillusionment about modern love.
“Love is not perfect,” the film seems to whisper to its audience, “or equal or easy.”
While holding an umbrella over Fong’s head in the middle of a rainstorm, Edward informs his fiancee that marriage is a contract. In another movie, this scene would undoubtedly be the exhilarating climax of the love story, but in this case, Edward goes on to mansplain the terms and conditions of “the contract.” As Edward holds Fong in the downpour, Tang’s face says it all: “ever after” without the “happily.”
“My Prince Edward” orbits around two settings: a bridal shop and the city of Hong Kong. The shop where Fong works is located in a mall called “The Golden Plaza,” or 金都商場, — a world of rental bridal gowns, tuxedos, tailors, paper stores selling red envelopes and wedding photographers. In other words, a world where romantic notions about marriage come to shatter under the plaza’s phosphorescent lights.
In contrast, the city of Hong Kong looms like a wedding banquet or a family heirloom. Wong’s camera follows the urban streets with the tenderness and affection that her characters crave. There is tremendous care in the traffic passing through an intersection at night, in the rain that submerges a brick walkway, in the turtles floating in a plastic aquarium. This is not the Hong Kong of global finance and political struggle. It is a soft, intimate portrait of a city faced with subtle and shadowy choices, much like the film’s protagonist.
“My Prince Edward” positions a would-be love triangle to explore the larger geopolitical relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. Fong’s ex-husband is a mainlander with a bad-boy business sense and an edgy haircut — every fiancee’s worst nightmare. Edward is a Hong Kong local who makes it hard for his girlfriend — and the audience — to see him as the romantic hero, let alone the titular character, of the film.
The dynamic that results between the smooth, disarming ex-husband from the People’s Republic of China and the safe, dependable, overbearing husband-to-be does not provide any easy or immediate commentary on relations between mainland China and Hong Kong. Rather, it tells the story of three people in a scandalous yet overwhelmingly practical predicament that transgresses borders, but remains cautious about tearing them down.
If there is a criticism to be made about “My Prince Edward,” it is that the film’s commitment to defying the romantic comedy genre is taken to its extremes. There are many moments when humor could have been less self-consciously deployed to help the film make its social and political points. The bureaucratic nightmare of simultaneously operating in Cantonese and Mandarin, the epistolary romance of text messaging and the ephemerality of a rental bridal shop all are tinged with humor. It is, alas, rarely more than just a twinge, and it is tantalizing to imagine what might have been if it were allowed to fully blossom.
The film’s greatest strength is its use of visual metaphors to convey the characters’ stakes in the narrative. The water turtle that Fong finds floating upside down at the beginning of the film has narrative longevity that spans the entire plot. From the opening credits, the film makes a promise that it keeps until the end. Like the turtle, this is a story about a woman who, through learning about her own self-worth and independence, finds a way to turn right side up.