Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting
China, 2009, colour, 2.35:1, 105 mins.
Director: Li Fangfang 李芳芳.
Impressive first film by novelist Li Fangfang boasts a good ensemble married to a smart script.
Hangzhou, China, 1992. Orphaned at the age of 11, Shen Xingchen (Yang Zhiwen) goes to live with her wealthy uncle Chen Jianfeng (Li Hongquan), his wife Gu Nian (Shi Ke) and their six-year-old son Chen Mo (Chen Wang). After his wife divorces him, Wang marries his mistress Li Qing (Wu Wenjia) and they have a daughter (Daotian Luna). Five years later, when Chen Mo is bullied at school, Shen Xingchen takes revenge against his attacker, Fatty Wang (Wang Jiajian), and receives unexpected help from Ming Yuan (Huang Ming), her high-school classmate. Shen Xingchen and Ming Yuan become close friends, though Ming Yuan is also fancied by fellow classmate Wen Jia (Yi Na). After graduation, Shen Xingchen goes to study at Beijing University, while Ming Yuan and Wen Jian stay in Hangzhou at the China Academy of Art. When the SARS epidemic hits China in 2003, Ming Yuan and Wen Jia are thrown even closer together, while Shen Xingchen, isolated up north, worries about him.
Mainland Chinese cinema of the past 20 years is rich in movies following characters from one political upheaval to another but rather less so in those where lives are shown in purely metaphysical terms. This first picture by writer Li Fangfang 李芳芳 [based on the 2008 novel 天长地久 by internet writer Jas, pen name of Feng Li 冯莉] is one of the latter: at heart a long-limbed melodrama, charting the ups and downs in the life of its protagonist, Shen Xingchen, from the age of 11 to 27 and through the will-they-won’t-they story of her relationship with fellow high-school student Ming Yuan. As the film’s [Chinese release] title [80’后] clearly states, this a story of the “post-’80” generation, growing up in a country which had largely put political upheavals behind it and was focusing on social stability and economic development. For this generation the markers are moments of national disaster or pride (the 2003 SARS epidemic, the 2008 Olympics) or simply those with a special signifiance to young people (the 2003 suicide of Hong Kong actor-singer Zhang Guorong 张国荣 [Leslie Cheung]).
The characters in Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting 长天地久 aren’t walking labels; they’re average middle-class Mainlanders driven solely by their emotions. After losing her parents, Hangzhou tweenie Shen Xingchen goes to live at her uncle’s home, where divorce is already in the air and she forms a close friendship with her younger cousin, Chen Mo; it’s the bullying of Chen Mo at school that introduces her to the fatalistic Ming Yuan, and it’s their relationship that emotionally powers the rest of the movie. The way in which characters slide in and out of the narrative – and how even a “rival” for Ming Yuan’s heart, fellow high schooler Wen Jia, is never demonised – gives the film a fluidity and depth that makes it much more than just a big-screen TV drama.
Li’s script packs an enormous amount of incident into the film’s 105 minutes, and its structure could easily have supported a longer running time to allow some of the supporting characters more development (Shen Xingchen’s friend Du Zihao, plus her uncle and his second wife, etc.). It’s a highly managed script, which is just a little too clever for its own good in its later scenes, but the final twist – which shows how the protagonists are bound by a deeper fate even they don’t realise – ends the movie with a punch.
Unusually for a writer adapting her own material, Li has paid meticulous attention to the technical side, with superb widescreen photography in Hangzhou by young American d.p. Lyle Vincent (also making his feature debut) and saturated colours (strong on blues) that increase the movie’s emotional resonance. It’s simply great to look at (without becoming stagey), packed with small detail (especially in the close-up inserts used in the first half) and atmospherically underpinned by the gently pulsing musical score of Lin Hai 林海 (Letter from an Unknown Woman 一个陌生女人的来信, 2004; Sunflower 向日葵, 2005).
Though Liu Dong 刘冬 and Huang Ming 黄明 make an appealing pair of leads, with big-sceen newcomer Liu cleverly handling the physical changes in Shen Xingchen from a lanky mid-teen to a late-20s career girl, it’s supporting actress Yi Na 伊娜 who’s most memorable as Wen Jia, the loyal “friend” in the waiting room for Ming Yuan’s heart. A role that could easily have been just a cliche provides some of the most moving moments in the film.
[The film premiered at the Tokyo festival under the Chinese title 长天地久 but was finally released in China as 80’后, literally “The ’80s Generation”. The English title stayed the same.]
Presented by China Film Group (CN), Dreams of Dragon Picture (CN), Union Voole Technology (CN), Free Fish Film (CN), CPC Hangzhou Committee (CN). Produced by Dreams of Dragon Picture Company (CN).
Script: Li Fangfang. Novel: Jas. Photography: Lyle Vincent. Editing: Li Fangfang. Music: Lin Hai. Production design: Han Chunlin. Costume design: Xu Jianshu [Lawrence Xu]. Sound: Chen Guang, Shen Jianqin. Consultants: Fu Gaoyang, Lu Jun, Ao Lirong, Wei Lian.
Cast: Liu Dong (Shen Xingchen/Grace), Huang Ming (Ming Yuan), Tao Shuai (Chen Mo), Yi Na (Wen Jia), Wu Wenjia (Li Qing), Tie Zheng (Du Zihao), Shi Ke (Gu Nian), Zhao Yue (Ming Yuan’s mother), Li Hongquan (Chen Jianfeng), Zhang Li (Feng Yong), Wang Jiajian (Fatty Wang), Zhou Weitong (Shen Xingchen’s mother), Shi Liang (Shen Xingchen’s mother’s lover), Yang Zhiwen (Shen Xingchen, aged 11), Yu Liming (fat boy), Chu Xingyi (Shen Xingchen’s father), Wu Lei (Ming Yuan, aged 11), Chen Wang (Chen Mo, aged 6), Fang Xu (tape seller), Liang Xiaowen (nanny), Lai Ziyang (Chen Mo, aged 11), Huang Wei (curly-haired boy), Daotian Luna (younger sister, aged 5), Zhou Hong (Shen Xingchen’s teacher), Mao Jian (Ming Yuan’s father), Zhu Jian (Wen Jia’s father), Yan Liping (Wen Jia’s mother), Gu Qingzuo (Du Zihao’s father), Zhou Ren (Du Zihao’s mother), Qian Dongyue (Xu Kang), Cao Shiping (professor), Fu Huafeng (merchandising class teacher), Fang Fang (woman in class), Si Qi (Du Zihao’s girlfriend), Ma Baofeng (Beijing University guard), He Jieqiong, Xiao Yayue (Shen Xingchen’s Beijing University roomates), Xu Xu (younger sister, aged 12), Kong Guoxing (taxi driver), Chen Shiyu, Wang Hao, Cao Yuan (Shen Xingchen’s male colleagues at dinner party), Xu Hong, Xiao Xi, Fran Wu (Shen Xingchen’s female colleagues at dinner party), Ren Shan (Wen Jia’s husband), Ding Yilan (teahouse waitress).
Premiere: Tokyo Film Festival (Competition), 19 Oct 2009.
Release: China, 25 Jun 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 19 May 2010.)