China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.
Director: Hwang Mi-na 황미나 | 黄美娜.
Messily scripted May-Sep comedy-drama is made watchable only by Mainland actress Yan Ni.
A coastal city in northern China, the present day. After her younger brother ran off with another woman, Li Tangzhen (Yan Ni) was left with raising his young son Xia Ke and daughter Xia Baihe, as well as looking after her mother who was starting to suffer from dementia. Xia Ke (Zhang Yichi) is now 18 and Xia Baihe (Song Yiren) 17. As well as working in a supermarket, Li Tangzhen also writes online novels under her niece’s name, having had an early success with one called Stars Falling upon My Heart 落在胸口的星星. Now 40, however, she feels her 20s and 30s slipped away from her, and is determined to prove her youth is not such a distant memory. After registering for an online computer game under her niece’s name, and using her own home phone number, she’s emailed by her gaming partner who’s impressed by her playing of a fantasy heroine to his hero. Li Tangzhen is shocked to see from his picture that he’s a young university student, Xiaojian (Du Tianhao), who wants to contact her. She shares the secret with her niece, but her nephew also finds out, and becomes angry when Xiaojian starts calling their home. Li Tangzhen finally admits to Xiaojian that she’s 40, and the voice that answered the phone was her niece’s. The cocky young Xiaojian doesn’t believe her and, convinced that any young woman will immediately fall for his good looks, he suggests they meet. Though she turns up in disguise, Xiaojian unmasks her and thinks she deliberately tricked him. His ego is further hit by his friends mocking him for dating a middle-aged spinster. Meanwhile, at a class reunion, Li Tangzhen bumps into He (Zhao Yixin), whom she’d known at university but had never been able to develop a romantic relationship with, as he’d suddenly left to work in the US. They renew their friendship and he asks her to come back to New York with him, as he’s always regretted their lost opportunity. What Li Tangzhen doesn’t know is that He is Xiaojian’s cousin and is staying with him. And what He doesn’t know is that she is the woman with whom Xiaojian is becoming obsessed, initially harrassing her at work but later spending time with her. And what Xiaojian doesn’t know is that his cousin only came back home to see Li Tangzhen and try to revive their relationship.
Not for the first time in her busy career, Mainland actress Yan Ni 闫妮 is the best thing in an otherwise variable movie, the May-Sep romantic comedy Special Encounter 美容针. Though it cleverly handles a little-explored theme in Chinese cinema – a burgeoning relationship between a middle-aged spinster and a student half her age – it’s messy on a script level, suffers from major miscasting of Taiwan-born, Canadian-educated actor Du Tianhao 杜天皓, 23, as the pretty toyboy, and never establishes a consistent tone between comedy and drama. An increasingly popular genre in South Korean and Japanese TV dramas (where it’s known as “noona romance”), the story is adapted from a Korean manga, Botox 보톡스, first serialised during 2009-11, and marks the directing debut of its creator, Hwang Mi-na 황미나 | 黄美娜, 56. Though the film grossed only a lame RMB10 million in the Mainland, it’s a rare example of a middle-aged Chinese actress taking on such a role. In an assured, gutsy performance Yan, 46, creates a rounded, touching and not at all self-pitying character, despite all the script’s weaknesses.
Encounter was initially set up as a South Korean production, to start shooting in Nov 2013 with actress Bak Jin-heui 박진희 | 朴真熙 (costume drama Shadows in the Palace 궁녀, 2007) and former boybander Yi Jun 이준 | 李准 in the main roles. At some point it morphed into a Mainland-funded, China-set production, and with casting that was much more realistic on an age level. In the original manga the characters’ ages are 42 and 21, closely reflected in the real ages of Yan and Du; at the time of the aborted Korean production, Bak was only 35 and Yi already 25, making the age difference more commercially acceptable. (In most “noona romances” the woman is in her 30s, not 40s.)
At the end of the day, however, it’s the performances that count and Yan is utterly convincing as a spinster cresting 40 who’s determined to prove that her 20s and 30s spent caring for her dotty mother and raising her nephew and niece are not just a distant memory. The Xi’an-born actress is now better known for her comic roles: the feisty peasant in Cow 斗牛 (2009), ranting innkeeper in My Own Swordsman 武林外传 (2011), Mainland gold-digger in All’s Well End’s Well 2011 最强囍事 (2011), randy manager in Some Like It Hot 情圣 (2016), or diva-ish earth goddess in Wished 反转人生 (2017). But she’s equally capable of playing nuanced drama: the mother in 11 Flowers 我11 (2011), nosey cadre in Coming Home 归来 (2014), divorced daughter in The New Year’s Eve of Old Lee 过年好 (2016), or stroppy housekeeper in The Wasted Times 罗曼蒂克消亡史, 2016). In Encounter, both those skills are used in creating the character of Li Tangzhen: from girlish shock/joy when confronted with advances from a boy half her age, to physical comedy when going to meet him in disguise, to her brave face when finally confronted with social prejudices.
By softening the lonely spinster side, and morphing the sexual attraction into more of a larky relationship, Yan’s performance – helped by her ageless looks – plays down the MILF-meets-toyboy aspects of the story to make it a more tastefully handled one of spiritual rather than sexual release. The problem is that Yan is paddling upstream the whole time, with no help from her leading man, Tu. Best known so far for metrosexual roles in Tiny Times 小时代 (2013), Forever Young 2015 栀子花开2015 (2015) and Mates 睡在我上铺的兄弟 (2016), Tu seems completely incapable of making his self-absorbed, spoiled and narcissistic character at all sympathetic. Among the rest of the cast, Mainland actor-model Zhao Yixin 赵毅新, 29, is wooden as Li Tangzhen’s old flame and looks too young for the part. As her free-thinking, supportive niece, 24-year-old Song Yiren 宋伊人 (At Cafe 6 六弄咖啡馆, 2016) is lively in the early going.
Though it has its individual moments, what the film lacks is any kind of dramatic structure or overall tone. What may have worked on the page of the original manga – excerpts from which are shown during the end titles – doesn’t work on screen: background is fitfully sketched in, transitions are bumpy, plot threads left hanging, and so on. Heavily influenced by cliches in South Korean cinema, the tone veers from physical comedy (Li Tangzhen flying through the air in slo-mo to cut off a phone call) through adult romance (she and He recalling their old friendship) to fluffy fun (she breaking free in Xiaojian’s company). One plot thread, of her struggling to get a novel published nowadays in book form, suddenly pops up out of nowhere in the final stretch. And the film’s coda, set in Africa, is pure Mills & Boon.
On the plus side, the film makes good use of ordinary, everyday locations (average flats, a supermarket, and so on), plus unfamiliar parts of Qingdao, northern China, all caught with realism by South Korean d.p. Choi Hyeon-gi 죄현기 | 崔铉基. (True to form, Hwang brought key Korean crew with her.) Reflecting Hwang’s manga background, the first half of the movie makes copious use of excerpts from the computer game through which the two parties meet, making the film initially seem like a “noona” version of Love O2O 微微一笑很倾城 (2016). Editing by Hong Kong’s Chen Zhiwei 陈志伟 [Andy Chan] is okay.
The Chinese title means “Beauty Shot”, in the sense of any kind of cosmetological injection, not just Botox. The film’s theme is that falling in love is the best beauty shot for any woman – but like any drug, though sweet it is also dangerous.
Presented by Wanda Media (CN).
Script: Yu Shihu, Xiao Qun. Manga: Hwang Mi-na. Photography: Choi Hyeon-gi. Editing: Chen Zhiwei [Andy Chan]. Art direction: Steven Son. Styling: Yi Seok-ho. Sound: Gim Seok-weon. Visual effects: Hong Jeong-ho.
Cast: Yan Ni (Li Tangzhen), Du Tianhao (Xiaojian), Zhao Yixin (He, Xiaojian’s cousin), Song Yiren (Xia Baihe, Li Tangzhen’s niece), Zhang Yichi (Xia Ke, Li Tangzhen’s nephew), Zong Xiaojun (Xiaojian’s father), Li Xiaopang (Xiaopang, Xiaojian’s pal), Ma Wenyuan (Li Rui, Xiaojian’s pal).
Premiere: Houston Film Festival (Panorama China), 30 Apr 2017.
Release: China, 19 May 2017.