Ma Wen’s Battle
China, 2010, colour, 1.85:1, 83 mins.
Director: Chang Zheng 常征.
An acerbic black comedy on contemporary relationships with an original, gritty look.
Xi’an, central China, the present day. Shocked at the news that his wife Yang Xin (Jiang Hongbo) is having an affair, Ma Wen (Cheng Taishen), who runs a small photographic studio, divorces her. Yang Xin, a shift nurse, marries her lover, Li Yi (Li Mengran), a government bureaucrat, but because Li Yi lost everything in his recent divorce, the couple are forced to share the same house as Ma Wen, who out of spite will not sell out to them. To encourage Ma Wen to move, Yang Xin and Li Yi try to find a girlfriend for him, hoping he’ll remarry, but all their attempts fail. Finally, Yang Xin suggests they try to match him with Li Yi’s sister, Li Qin (Wang Ji), a wealthy divorcee who runs a beauty business.
Based on a 2003 novella by popular writer Ye Zhaoyan 叶兆言 – whose 1994 novel The Flower’s Shadow 花影 formed the basis of the film Temptress Moon 风月 (1996) by Chen Kaige 陈凯歌 – Ma Wen’s Battle 马文的战争 is a deliciously black romantic comedy directed like a socio-realist movie. Ye’s book was already adapted into a 2008 TV drama series (starring Lin Yongjian 林永健 and Song Dandan 宋丹丹 as the divorced couple, see left) but with its grittier look and tight running time the movie is much truer to the spirit of the original. The handheld, no-frills direction by Chang Zheng 常征 (Winter Warmth 冬暖, 2006) makes the film look like a deliberate riposte to the current wave of slick Mainland rom-coms, though beneath its acerbic dialogue it’s much more romantic than many of them.
Despite the lack of slick direction and big star names, it’s also much more emotionally involving, thanks to a sardonic script by Chang and regular d.p. Qu Li’nan 曲瓅男 and excellent ensemble playing by Cheng Taishen 成泰燊 (the second husband in In Love We Trust 左右, 2008) as the hangdog, stubborn hero, Jiang Hongbo 姜宏波 as the wife who’s still quite fond of him, Li Mengnan 李梦男 as her ever-conciliatory new husband Li Yi, and Wang Ji 王姬 as the latter’s rich and predatory sister.
Grounded in the present-day reality of many couples not being able to afford their own homes, the movie is like an extreme version of a traditional courtyard picture, here with the characters literally living in each other’s laps. The already cramped home’s living room is divided by a curtain, with no privacy at bedtime, and the couple’s young son becomes a human yo-yo between the two sides. Dialogue scenes are also played out like an elaborate tennis match, with Ma Wen and Li Yi engaged in combative humour as they perpetually try to best each other, and the wife trying her best to prevent all-out war. Set in often garishly-lit interiors that match the characters’ moods, the stew of conflicting emotions finally boils over during a long weekend at the luxurious home of Li Yi’s sister.
The ending is visible early on as, despite the film’s more realist style, the main emotional arc is pretty generic. But thanks to an especially subtle performance by Jiang (Call for Love 爱情呼叫转移, 2007) as the wife in the middle, there are also several touching moments between the mordantly black ones, not least an hour into the movie when Ma Wen and his ex find they still have the hots for each other. It’s an emotional touchstone in the film which sustains it through the last act – set in the very different confines of the sister’s house – that doesn’t quite match the rest of the movie.
Presented by Boom Star Film & TV Culture (CN), Xi’an Bo Shun Culture Media (CN), Beijing Yuan Jing Shi Xian Culture (CN). Produced by Boom Star (CN).
Script: Chang Zheng, Qu Li’nan. Novella: Ye Zhaoyan. Photography: Qu Li’nan. Editing: Tu Yiran. Music: Guo Sida. Art direction: Zhou Yan. Sound: Wang Changrui, Qu Yifeng.
Cast: Cheng Taishen (Ma Wen), Jiang Hongbo (Yang Xin), Wang Ji (Li Qin), Li Mengnan (Li Yi), Baixiao Yingnan (Ma Hu, Ma Wen’s son).
Release: China, 21 May 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 11 Nov 2010.)