Zhao Baogang’s One Step Away tells the story of a double-agent Communist serving as a KMT-employed Communist-hunter named Fu (played by Sun Honglei), who harbours secret affections for Ning (played by Kwai Lun-Mei), a dance instructor who works for his handler. When his handler is captured and commits suicide to avoid being questioned, it falls upon Fu to torture and subsequently monitor the movement of Ning— setting the stage for this love story set in pre-war Shanghai.
From his post in a hotel room with views of the dance school, Fu develops his first hint of feelings for the young and innocent Ning; Fu eventually visits her under the cover of darkness and talks to her by writing a note in water on a dusty staircase, knowing that everything is being recorded. At this point, the movie hints little at the romantic aspect of the Fu-Ning relationship, and feels like a movie about spycraft; however, shortly thereafter Fu begins to visit Ning more often, and offers to dance with Ning. The intimacy of the dance scene powerfully captures the interplay of relationships and passion between the two that have been repressed by the nature of Fu’s job.
The movie becomes a bit confusing as it progresses through the story; the spycraft takes a backseat to the romance between Fu and Ning, and suddenly the Japanese arrive in the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Fu’s job as a double agent is not a significant part of the plot from this point forwards, as the KMT faction previously dedicated to fighting the Communists is reassigned to assassinate a Japanese general who is making a visit to the dance hall. The leaders of the KMT faction overrule Fu’s objection that the innocent dance hall instructors may be killed in the assassination attempt, and Fu decides to tell Ning in advance of the attack so that he can prevent her from becoming an innocent casualty of war. The events leading up to, and the execution of, the assassination are very well put-together, as plot elements intertwine with one another to drive the story.
Without spoiling anything, after the assassination scene a travel-forwards mechanism is used to skip ahead a few years, and the plotline becomes much less intense. The post-war love story between Fu and Ning is one of merriment in each other’s company, although Fu faces considerable pressure to marry a woman introduced by his superior officer’s wife. This conflict is exasperated by the Communist Revolution, when the KMT officers must evacuate Shanghai and head to Taiwan.
However, the remainder of the film feels loosely put together, as it jumps from event to event across a large time scale— after all, the Second Sino-Japanese War ended in 1945 and Shanghai did not fall to the Communists until 1949. It would have been great to see Fu and Ming’s relationship develop together, but the film makers took a lazy turn as if they were showing bullet-points of their relationship rather than a weaving, continuous story. The real ending of the film almost feels cheap—but it is difficult to describe how without spoiling the ending itself, so I will let the reader make the judgment for himself.
The film was produced by the state-run China Film Group; unsurprisingly, the final scene in the film is not some romantic reminiscing about the past relationship between Fu and Ming, but of the presentation of an award for service to the Party in the Great Hall of the People to an elderly Fu.
Overall, the film is worth watching, but not spectacular by any means; the intense dance scenes carry the passion of two lovers dramatically but the generally lackluster storytelling draws away from the great acting.
One Step Away (Chinese: 触不可及)—China. Directed by Zhao Baogang. First released September 2014. Running time 1hr 37 min. Starring Sun Honglei and Kwai Lun-mei.