Love on Gallery Bridge
China, 2012, colour, 1.85:1, 96 mins.
Director: Chen Li 陈力.
Beautifully shot and acted drama of a middle-aged village woman and her three men.
Shouning county, Ningde municipality, northeast Fujian province, China, the present day. In a small village, a Beilu Opera 北路戏 work is being staged, and in the audience is onetime troupe member Yimei (Xu Shouli), whose life story in many ways represents the recent history of the village. Afterwards, a young reporter (Wang Mingfei) interviews her. Yimei recalls how, as a middle-aged noodle-maker, she was set to finally marry local baker Wang Shunsheng (Sun Weimin), who had always loved her. At that time, Changtian (Wu Xingguo), with whom she’d performed as a child and who also secretly loved her, had returned to the village after 20 years away, following a crash by the troupe’s bus when everyone was young. In the accident, Lin Fukun (Hu Yang), the sweetheart of the young Yimei (Yang Mo), had apparently died, and she had always been angry at Wang Shunsheng for not rescuing Lin Fukun as well as her. As a result, Wang Shunsheng had waited patiently for an opportunity to marry her. Changtian, who’d since married and divorced, had been invited back to the village by his teacher’s aged wife (Zhou Liangliang) to restore wall paintings on the Longevity Gallery Bridge. He stayed with his younger sister, the lame Xiulian (Shao Xiaowei), who’d always wanted to marry Shunsheng when she was younger. Although he had a heart problem, Changtian had still performed a traditional table-climbing stunt (the diàojiǔlóu 吊九楼) at Wang Shunsheng and Yimei’s wedding feast, to show respect to the villagers. Yimei had subsequently heard the truth of what happened on the day of the bus crash from the adult Lin Fukun (Jiang Dawei), who returned to the village as a wealthy businessman.
A beautifully shot drama about a middle-aged village woman and the three men in her life, Love on Gallery Bridge 爱在廊桥 is much subtler and more emotionally layered than the best-known previous film by writer-director Chen Li 陈力, Duet 两个人的芭蕾 (2005). It also provides a fine platform for four actors of a certain age in a story that focuses on maturity rather than just youth. As the middle-aged noodle-maker with a complicated love-life spread over four decades, actress Xu Shouli 徐守莉 – best remembered for 1980s dramas like Woman Demon Human 人•鬼•情 (1987) and here returning to the big screen after more than a dozen years – still looks vibrant and terrific in her early 50s, and manages to naturally bounce off her three male co-stars in different ways.
Of the trio, Mainland actor Sun Weimin 孙维民, 53, has the strongest screen presence, as the good-hearted baker who finally becomes her husband, and shows he’s good for more than just playing Zhou Enlai roles. Taiwan’s Wu Xingguo 吴兴国, 59, as another torch-holder who’s loved her in even more mysterious ways, brings a reined-back masculinity to his role. Making a rare appearance in a Mainland movie, Shaw Brothers veteran Jiang Dawei 姜大卫 [David Chiang], the oldest at 65, has the smallest part as the sweetheart who once got away but handles it with dignity.
Photographed by Huang Shan 黄山 in rich colours (especially reds and blues), and evocatively lit in both interiors and exteriors, Love presents an idealised portrait of life in a small Fujian village that’s nothing really new. However, the film’s emotional structure is strong thanks to a multilayered script that’s narrated on at least four time-levels and, especially during the opening half-hour, is very dense – to a point that the movie really requires a second viewing to fully understand its introduction. Like the film itself, the dialogue is somewhat formal and slightly stylised: this isn’t how villagers talk to each other, except in well-appointed dramas between onetime opera performers and artists, but it doesn’t really matter as the performances are so engaging.
As in Duet, Chen remains a visually aware director but here reserves her flash for special occasions, such as some of the the opera scenes or a magical moment after one character scales some tables at a wedding feast. Where the film disappoints is in not making the bridge of the title into a fifth character in the drama. So-called “gallery bridges” 廊桥 – those with cladded sides, often richly decorated – are a speciality of Fujian province, in which the film was also shot (in Shouning county, up north) and partly funded. But this very particular kind of old wooden bridge is scarcely seen in the movie, let alone used as a dramatic device.
Presented by Fujian Film Studio (CN), August First Film Studio (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), China Movie Channel (CN), Fujian Photographers Association (CN). Produced by Fujian Film Studio (CN), Shouning County Party Committee & Government (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), China Movie Channel (CN), Fujian Photographers Association (CN).
Script: Chen Li, Liu Ting. Photography: Huang Shan. Editing: Yang Qianxun. Music: Zhang Hongguang. Opera music: Zhu Jiang. Art direction: Zhou Jinglun. Costumes: Mu Hua, Ren Yijuan. Opera make-up: Yu Xiaopeng. Sound: Wang Yin’gang. Executive direction: Jiang Ping.
Cast: Xu Shouli (Yimei), Wu Xingguo (Changtian), Sun Weimin (Wang Shunsheng), Jiang Dawei [David Chiang] (Lin Fukun), Shao Xiaowei (Xiulian), Zhou Liangliang (old wife of Changtian’s teacher), Wang Mingfei (reporter), Yang Mo (young Yimei), Tian Tian (child Yimei), Yin Jun (young Changtian), Le Weicheng (child Changtian), Gao Junwei (young Wang Shunsheng), Hu Yang (young Lin Fukun), Chen Yanyan (young Xiulian), Guo Feng (Xiulian’s husband), Xiao Yongze (Xiulian’s son), Ye Siwei (bridegroom), Li Na (bride), Cui Longlong (Yimei’s son), Yuhong (Yimei’s daughter).
Release: China, 23 Mar 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 26 Jun 2012.)