China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 89 mins.
Directors: Huang Yan 黄燕, Lao Ma 老马 [Ma Lin 马林].
Modest comedy-drama centred on three young people defies genre expectations and is genuinely affecting.
Beijing, the present day. Yan Dan (Xu Lu) weighs 200lbs, has been made redundant at work, and has been thrown out of her flat. At a gym she’s making no progress on trying to lose weight and has made no friends. Homeless and penniless, she’s invited to a meal by the only person who ever spoke to her at the gym – former actor Guan Xiaokang (Wei Daxun). He offers her a job, in exchange for food and accommodation, at a cafe-bakery he’s just opened with a singer-guitarist friend, Ma (Mao Chuan). Guan Xiaokang runs the cafe with passion, and even offers cookery classes, but business is slow and the rent high. Initially, Yan Dan, who only knows how to stuff her face, does menial tasks; but gradually, with Guan Xiaokang’s encouragement, she becomes more confident and starts suggesting ideas to boost business, like online marketing and Ma holding music evenings. Just when things are slowly improving, the landlord (Ye Daying) raises the rent by a third. That night Guan Xiaokang gets drunk and reveals to Yan Dan the reason why he helped her. He gives her the company bank book and card to look after. But one day, en route to banking RMB10,000, she’s robbed in the street. She phones her father (Han Tongsheng) for help, without luck, though he secretly visits Guan Xiaokang and offers him the missing amount. Guan Xiaokang’s luck improves when he gets a film role that Yan Dan encouraged him to audition for. But then the landlord arrives with more news.
The lives of three young people briefly intersect with positive results in The Light 减法人生, a modest but affecting first feature by writer-director Huang Yan 黄燕 with a notable big-screen debut by TV actress Xu Lu 徐璐 in a fattie suit. Dedicated to “life’s little losers”, and starting out like a rom-com centred on an overweight saddo, the film continually surprises (a) by the way it never develops as expected and (b) by the subtle, low-key direction that’s always in the service of the dialogue and actors. Though it made almost zero at the box office, it’s is a very likeable calling-card for a film-maker whose previous experience appears to have been limited to being one of a dozen or so writers on CG cartoon hit Boonie Bears: To the Rescue! 熊出没之夺宝熊兵 (2014) and working on the producing side of army-doctor biopic Silently Love 默守那份情 (2015).
As the camera moves through a trendy Beijing gym to settle on glum and lonely 200lb fattie Yan Dan (Xu), the film looks like becoming a Chinese version of South Korean comedy 200 Pounds Beauty 미녀는 괴로워 (2006) with a Mainland rom-com spin. In fact, as she’s offered a job by a young guy who’s just opened a cafe-bakery, it turns into something else – a light comedy-drama about what people’s aims in life really are. Though Yan Dan spends a lot of time talking about slimming, she never seems to get down to it, basically because she has no goals in life and even less self-confidence; likewise, Guan Xiaokang is passionate about his new business, but can it really supplant his previous interest in becoming an actor? Though it overdoes the mantra of “anything is possible if you really want it”, Huang’s script, co-written with Sang Ye 桑野, seems to say that sometimes you just have to pass through this to get to that, and there’s a nice feel that the three main characters (including Guan Xiaokang’s business partner Ma, a wannabe singer guitarist) could just be bouncing off each other, subconsciously, before going their separate ways.
The film perpetually plays with the viewer’s genre expectations: that Yan Dan is going to lose her rolls of fat and and emerge as a beautiful butterfly, that she and Guan Xiaokang are going to become romantically involved, that the bakery business is going to overcome its hurdles and make everyone rich, and so on. The way in which Huang keeps these expectations simmering without leaving her audience feeling cheated is very subtle, basically through creating genuinely likeable characters, underplaying the comedy, and not going for tricksy direction.
Inner Mongolia-born Xu, 22, who’s been in TVDs since her early teens, plays Yan Dan without any body prosthetics apart from a fat suit under her clothes and, although her face doesn’t really fit the jelly-like mass underneath it, the actress overcomes most of the belief gap by acting fat rather than making the role just an effects showcase. (Facial prosthetics were tried at the start of filming but proved impractical for a modestly-budgeted movie.) As the bakery boss, baby-faced Wei Daxun 魏大勋, 27 – the drummer in campus comedy Forever Young 2015 栀子花开2015 (2015) – shows equally good timing as and chemistry with Xu, keeping in check a role that could easily have tipped over into handsome-guy cliches, while Mao Chuan 毛川, 34, real-life lead singer with band Escape Plan, is solid as the easy-going business partner. Among several cameos by known names, hatchet-faced Han Tongsheng 韩童生 (so good as the taxi-driver juror in 12 Citizens 十二公民, 2014) nicely underplays a scene as Yan Dan’s estranged father and onetime writer-director Ye Daying 叶大鹰 (Red Cherry 红樱桃, 1996; Tian An Men 天安门, 2009) ditto as the tough but finally perceptive landlord.
Despite being mostly set within the cafe-bakery, The Light maintains interest visually without becoming too glossy or cosy in a South Korean or Taiwan way. The quietly gliding camera of d.p. Shen Yang 沈杨 serves up well-lit compositions without calling attention to itself. The weird English title is never explained.
Presented by The Time & Being Culture Media (CN), Chengdu Xinghe Cultural Diffusion (CN), Xinyue Pictures (CN).
Script: Huang Yan, Sang Ye. Photography: Shen Yang. Editing: Chen Bingfeng. Music: Patrick Whalen, Escape Plan. Art direction: Wang Heyang. Costume design: Chao Xia, Li Zhihui. Sound: Zhang Beiman, Yu Qiang. Special effects make-up: Lian Kai (Cinemorph). Executive direction: Sun Wei.
Cast: Xu Lu (Yan Dan), Wei Daxun (Guan Xiaokang), Mao Chuan (Ma), Qi Xi (tattooed cookery student), Han Tongsheng (Yan Changqing, Yan Dan’s father), Ye Daying (landlord), Li Chengpeng (company head), Guan Yaomiao (younger married cookery student), Tu Ling (older married cookery student), Xu Yue (beautiful cookery student), Wang Xinyue (personnel manager), Fan Linfeng (Zeng Ran, Yan Dan’s high-school crush), Zeng Qi (You Jingci), Song Yiren (gym receptionist), Yang Zi (pregnant friend), Wu Xiaoliang (hot gym guy), Li Xiaoming (film actress), Peng Yijun (gym trainer), Bai Zhenyu (hot gym guy), Liang Yuejun (overseas Chinese), Sun Wei (assistant film director).
Release: China, 11 Nov 2016.