Lovers in the Water
China, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 92 mins.
Directors: Zheng Zheng 郑正, Chen Fu 陈富.
Emotionally delicate drama of a dying young man visiting his hometown avoids obvious melodrama.
Chongqing municipality, central China, the present day. After some temporarily successful treatment, the terminally ill Tan Bingjian (Li Xueqing), 30, discharges himself from hospital, leaves his job, and returns by coach to his hometown of Longtan, in Youyang municipality, during the New Year holiday. At a rest stop, one of the passengers, young Liao Yun (Shang Hua), faints in the toilet and on arrival Tan Bingjian has her examined by a doctor friend, Zhao Qiang, who says she is weak from an abortion a few days earlier. Liao Yun turns out to be someone Tan Bingjian once knew in his hometown when she was a young girl; later, she left for Chongqing to perform the Tujia ethnic minority’s “waving dance” in the big city, where she met club owner Huang Xinzhong (Shang Yubo). She has now returned to her hometown to teach dance. Tan Bingjian stays with his mother and his younger sister Tan Xiaoxuan (Xin Yi’na) – who’s about to marry – and remeets old friends, including Wang Tianling and a woman he once knew, Lu Yan, who is now divorced and has returned with her young son. Tan Bingjian reopens his father’s small snack restaurant, and he and Liao Yun spend time together and grow close, though he hides the secret of his illness from her and others. After the sudden death of Zhao Qiang, Tan Bingjian starts to avoid Liao Yun, and then Huang Xinzhong arrives, claiming Liao Yun broke her contract with him.
A film sketching moods and sensations rather than anything more concrete, Lovers in the Water 摆手舞之恋 follows a dying young man who quits his job in Chongqing and goes back to his hometown, where he remeets by chance a woman from his childhood. It’s a story built out of several familiar building blocks of melodrama – terminal disease, lost love, scenic settings, a dab of ethnic-minority culture (here, the “waving dance” of the Tujia 土家 which forms the film’s Chinese title) – that sidesteps being melodramatic. That’s partly because first-time feature directors Zheng Zheng 郑正 (founder of Chongqing Independent Film & Video Festival) and Chen Fu 陈富 (a documentary filmmaker) just let the characters go about their business without over-exoticising the setting of a typical zhèn 镇 (old township) in a southeastern Chongqing municipality or even fully developing all the emotions implicit in the relationships and themes outlined in the first half-hour.
The 30-something man – played in a neutral, low-key style by model Li Xueqing 李学庆 – meets family and old friends, reopens his late father’s small restaurant, bumps into a woman he once had a relationship with, and comes close to having a new relationship with a dance teacher he knew when she was a kid. All of them seem keener to re-establish friendships with him than he is with them, and the film thus becomes one about continuing loss (time moves on, people pass away) but with a curiously untragic flavour. The man holds his secret from almost everyone and seems at peace with himself, more so than those around him.
It’s an original idea that the filmmakers and scriptwriter Ying Liang 应亮 never push beyond its fragile limitations, and is all the better for it: in its emotional delicacy the movie sometimes recalls the purity of the recent  Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋 by Zhang Yimou 张艺谋. As the Tujia dance teacher with a troubled backstory, model-actress Shang Hua 尚华 (from the 2008 comedy Lao Wu’s Oscar 老五的奥斯卡) is suitably graceful but a bit wooden compared with the rest of the cast, all of whom blend naturally into the smalltown setting. Production credits are strong, with textured photography by Chinese American d.p. Zhu Zhigang 朱志刚 [Jeffrey Chu] (Stand by Me 奋斗, 2011) and delicate scoring by Zhang Xiao 张骁.
Presented by Chongqing Olmec Communications (CN), Chongqing University Meishi Film College Management (CN), Chongqing Yingfeng Culture Communication (CN). Produced by Chongqing Youyang Tujia & Miao Autonomous Prefecture Committee, Chongqing University Meishi Film College (CN), Beijing Dahe Dongliu Culture Communication (CN).
Script: Ying Liang. Photography: Zhu Zhigang [Jeffrey Chu]. Editing: Jiang Tianzeng. Music: Zhang Xiao. Art direction: Zhang Ning. Costumes: Cai Wenyao, Ya Ping. Sound: Luo Jun. Choreography: Gao Liqing.
Cast: Li Xueqing (Tan Bingjian), Shang Hua (Liao Yun), Shang Yubo (Huang Xinzhong), Xin Yi’na (Tan Xiaoxuan, Tan Bingjian’s younger sister), Zhao Hu, Guan Junbing, Wang Xi, Liu Jing, Sun Jizhao, Zhang Nan, Qi Jiefu, Shangguan Fei.
Release: China, 7 Apr 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 22 Jun 2011.)