China/Hong Kong, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 95 mins.
Director: Liu Guonan 刘国楠.
Predictable, scatter-gun rom-com is rescued by pure star power from the two leads.
Guangzhou, China, the present day. Ye Jin (Zheng Xiuwen), the French-national CEO of a large insurance company, despairs of ever finding the perfect partner. After catching her fiance Qin Feng (Yin Ziwei) in a Southeast Asian hotel room with her company’s receptionist (Xu Dongdong) she decides to become a single mother. Taking her assistant Weiwei (Feng Wenjuan) into her confidence, she advertises for a male personal assistant. None of the applicants prove suitable. Then one day, during an attack by an employee who’s just been sacked (Zhao Siyuan), she’s rescued by express courier Xiao Bo (Zhang Xiaoquan), who happens to be delivering a package. She offers him the job – which, at RMB36,000 a month, is more than double his present pay – and he accepts. His easy-going attitude is the opposite to Ye Jin’s control-freak lifestyle; but after he proves himself, she tells him she really wants him to be her sperm donor. Xiao Bo initially demurs but when she offers him a contract for RMB900,000 he accepts, as he needs the money. Ye Jin goes back to Normandy, northwest France, where she grew up, to have her obstetrician friend Sophie (Jin Qiaoqiao) perform the insemination procedure. Xiao Bo accompanies her as she stays on to see if it is successful.
For much of the time, star power is the only visible means of support for Love Contractually 合约男女, a totally predictable Mainland rom-com about a hard-nosed female exec of a certain age who decides to become a single mum. Thanks to good chemistry between Hong Kong singer-actress Zheng Xiuwen 郑秀文 [Sammi Cheng], 44, and Taiwan’s Zhang Xiaoquan 张孝全 [Joseph Chang], 33, the film is a smooth enough time-waster for an hour-and-a-half but consistently promises more than it ever delivers, thanks to a script that’s all over the place and direction by first-timer Liu Guonan 刘国楠 – a onetime assistant to Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 and Gu Changwei 顾长卫, plus many commercials – that can’t sustain an even tone for more than five minutes. In China the film managed only a modest RMB60 million, and did nothing to stabilise Zheng’s wobbly movie career of the past decade or so.
Mainland writers Zhu Zhu 朱珠 and Tian Xiaowei 田晓威, who both worked on the beautifully crafted high-school charmer Young Style 青春派 (2013), are credited with the screenplay, but journeyman writer-director Jiang Cheng 江澄 (Hands in the Hair 做头, 2005; To Love or Not 一夜未了情, 2011) has a prominent credit for the original story and “overall script planning” 剧本总策划. (Even more curious, there’s an on-screen disclaimer at the very start that “this film’s story is purely fictional”.) Whatever the creative process, the finished result is a total smorgasbord: part sperm-donor comedy (a subject already dealt with in One Night Stud 有种你爱我, 2015), part rom-com, part melodrama, and with a change of location from Guangzhou to scenic Europe for the final half-hour and even a cute animated sequence thrown into the pot. Not only does the film look like it’s been ruthlessly pared back (several characters make only fleeting appearances) but it also has the feel of a committee job with no clear guiding spirit.
What One Night Stud lacked but Love Contractually has in spades is good chemistry between the two leads, with Zhang (a variable actor who needs the right roles) especially good here as the easy-going bike courier who signs on for the no-strings-attached task. Thanks to his relaxed, likeable performance, and flattering photography by Mainland d.p. Sha Jincheng 沙金城 (The Sword Identity 倭寇的踪迹, 2011), the age gap between the two leads works in a positive way, and Zheng (also a variable actress who needs the right roles) bonding agreeably with him on-screen. On a character level, however, where Zhang makes his role believable, Zheng never gets a fix on hers, balancing the control-freak OCD executive with the soppier romantic inside.
Halfway through, the script tries to explain the two sides of Zheng’s character with a clumsy B&W flashback and some business about her father (Hong Kong’s Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet]) who’s now suffering from Alzheimer’s. But it’s simply a time-filling distraction that’s never followed up. You can almost hear the writers’ relief as the setting switches to France for the insemination and incubation, which provides lots of opportunities for touristy and ooh-la-la stuff in Paris and scenic Normandy. When the plot needs to be wrapped up, it’s done as pure romantic melodrama, with none of the earlier lightness.
The film’s first half-hour is the best, with plenty of visual energy as the characters are assembled and lots of cameos by Mainland personalities (e.g. in the montage where male applicants audition). In fact, when the meet-cute moment finally takes place – a bonkers action scene that’s transformed into a captivating, slo-mo tango – it looks like Love Contractually is going to be a top-flight rom-com. Alas, that’s about as good as it gets and, after a lively section of Zhang’s bike courier being groomed for the job, the script increasingly starts running on empty.
In her biggest movie role to date, third-billed Feng Wenjuan 冯文娟, 27, bounces off the screen as the exec’s cynical/sexy right-hand woman, showing a real talent for sparky comedy; the film loses a lot of energy when she’s not around. Experienced actress-singer Jin Qiaoqiao 金巧巧, 41, who recently slummed it as the decoy villainess in From Vegas to Macau II 赌城风云II (2015), partly compensates as the exec’s grounded BFF in the Normandy scenes that occupy most of the final half-hour. But by then the going is largely down to just Zheng and Zhang as the wannabe lovers.
After a perky start, scoring by busy Chinese American composer Wang Zongxian 王宗贤 [Nathan Wang] becomes more and more soupy, though occasionally it’s done as a deliberate blind. Other technical credits are solid, if short on top-flight slickness.
Presented by Bona Film Group (CN), Beijing Jupiter Times Media (CN), Sun Entertainment Culture (HK), Bona Entertainment (HK). Produced by Beijing Jupiter Times Media (CN).
Script: Zhu Zhu, Tian Xiaowei. Original story: Jiang Cheng. Photography: Sha Jincheng. Editing: Qian Fang. Music: Wang Zongxian [Nathan Wang]. Art direction: Chen Weiren. Costume design: Eason Wang. Sound: Lu Yaodong, Tao Junjie. Action: Wang Xinfeng. Animation: Zhang Jian. Visual effects: Ma Xiaorui. Executive direction: Zhang Zhong.
Cast: Zheng Xiuwen [Sammi Cheng] (Ye Jin/Katrina), Zhang Xiaoquan [Joseph Chang] (Xiao Bo), Feng Wenjuan (Weiwei/Vivian, Ye Jin’s assistant), Jin Qiaoqiao (Sophie), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Ye Jin’s father), Yin Ziwei [Terence Yin] (Qin Feng, Ye Jin’s ex-fiance), Xu Dongdong (Jenni, Qin Feng’s lover), Zhang Xianzi (Fangfang, Xiao Bo’s girlfriend), Tian Ye (Eason), Wang Yafei (express courier), Zhao Siyuan (Lucy, sacked employee), Zhao Yiming (ladyboy, interviewee), Yang Di (Yang Di, nerdy man, interviewee), Cai Mingkai (African American, interviewee), Zhang Zhou (smartly-dressed man, interviewee), Sang Mingsheng (stationmaster), Zong Xiaojun (hospital head), Duan Yuchan (Sophie’s son), Xu Huangli (young Ye Jin), Hong Mu (Ye Jin’s mother), Liu Wei (psychologist), Qin Chuan (fengshui master), Zhao Jingqun (gym trainer), Li Hanchen (artist), Ma Jiahui (nutritionist), Mei Han (Xiao Bo’s sister-in-law), Shi Pengyuan (Xiang, Xiao Bo’s nephew).
Release: China, 14 Feb 2017; Hong Kong, 16 Feb 2017.