For the sake of certain performers, you sometimes wish the material they're in could be stronger - and that's certainly the case with the Hong Kong comedy/drama "Comrades, Almost a Love Story."

Thanks to two very strong lead performances (by Hong Kong pop star Leon Lai and actress Maggie Cheung, from the "Police Story" film series), it starts strong and manages to avoid most of the cliched pitfalls that most romantic movies face.Unfortunately, "Comrades" eventually runs out of ideas and bogs down under the weight of plot contrivances that wouldn't be too out of place in American soap operas.

The story unfolds episodically over the course of 10 years, beginning with the arrival of mainland immigrant Jun (Lai) in Hong Kong. Not knowing anyone there except an aunt who is obsessed with the late star William Holden, Jun finds solace by writing to his sweetheart back home.

But he soon finds a friend in Qiao (Cheung), a beautiful entrepreneur who involves the humble delivery boy in some of her get-rich-quick schemes. The two also become romantically involved for a time before discounting their obvious feelings and ending their friendship.

Flash forward a few years, with Jun now married to his old girl-friend and Qiao involved with a hood (veteran Hong Kong character actor Eric Tsang). Jun and Qiao become reaquainted and share a brief night of passion before parting. But that reunion sets the stage for another fated meeting of the two years later in New York.

There are so many nice dialogue touches, and both leads are terrific (especially Cheung, who makes Qiao seem as sweet as she is naive). But the silly final third isn't nearly as inspired, and the circumstances that keep the two apart feel forced.

Praise and blame fall equally on director Peter Chan ("He's a Woman, She's a Man") and screenwriter Ivy Ho, who don't know when to quit - despite an attempt to redeeem things with an ironic ending.

"Comrades, Almost a Love Story" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for profanity, some violent slapping and gunplay, and some vulgar gestures.