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Review: The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes (2017)

The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes

前任3  再见前任

China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 117 mins.

Director: Tian Yusheng 田羽生.

Rating: 7/10.

Good chemistry and confident direction make this the smoothest of the three yuppie relationship comedies, despite a stretched-out third act.

STORY

A city in China, the present day, August. Five years ago Meng Yun (Han Geng) and his best friend Yu Fei (Zheng Kai) set up their own company Mojo Design, which soon prospered. Meng Yun’s girlfriend Lin Jia (Yu Wenwen) was proud to stand behind him as he made his name and fortune. Now, however, the couple are reluctantly breaking up. While Yu Fei and his girlfriend Ding Dian (Zeng Mengxue) are discussing the break-up, they get into a drunken row and break up themselves. Ding Dian invites Lin Jia to stay with her, while Yu Fei goes to stay with Meng Yun. Each party is too proud to call the other first. While Lin Jia and Ding Dian mope at home, the two men go on an orgy of bachelorhood. When drunk one evening, Ding Dian finally calls an equally drunk Yu Fei and the two have a yelling match. To clear her mind, Lin Jia decides to go on a holiday to Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, which she and Meng Yun had always planned to visit. Yu Fei and Ding Dian meet to return each other’s presents, get drunk, and end up in bed. When Lin Jia returns from Manado, she goes to a class reunion dinner where she meets Wang Xin (Han Wenliang), an old schoolmate she hasn’t seen for 10 years. The two start spending time together. While Lin Jia and Ding Dian finally start having some fun, Meng Yun and Yu Fei go on a blind date with two twins. Later on, Yu Fei and Ding Dian meet again, get drunk again, and end up in bed again. Hearing Lin Jia is partying in a KTV with some randy types, Meng Yun goes with Yu Fei to “rescue” her, but the mission goes awry. Then, during a business dinner with an important client, Meng Yun meets Wang Zi (Luo Mi), the client’s sparky niece.

REVIEW

After cannibalising first a semi-autobiographical novel and then a hit South Korean rom-com, Chengdu-born film-maker Tian Yusheng 田羽生, 34, comes up with original material for The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes 前任3  再见前任, the third go-round in his loose series of yuppie relationship comedies. Despite a final section that’s strung-out, the overall result is the smoothest and most confident film of the lot, not only in its technical packaging (regular d.p. Huang Lian 黄炼, plus ace Hong Kong editor Li An’er 林安儿 [Angie Lam] from the first film) but also in its acting (leads Zheng Kai 郑凯, Han Geng 韩庚) and writing (again by a group of scribes under Tian’s workshop New Saint Film Studio 新圣堂工作室). Though billed on posters as the final entry, its knockout Mainland box office of some RMB1.9 billion after four weeks would seem to cast that in doubt.

Once again, the plot and characters have no connection with the previous films’, apart from being centred on relationships between Mainland yuppies who think money can buy everything. Tian, however, maintains his playful approach by having Zheng again play a womanising character called Yu Fei who’s similar to the previous two Yu Feis without being exactly the same person. Further complicating matters is that Zheng is reunited with the star of the first film, Han, who again plays a character called Meng Yun but who also isn’t exactly the same person. All that aside, the plot here is much simpler than the previous films’: Meng Yun and Yu Fei, who are here partners in a successful design firm, split up with/are dumped by their girlfriends and the foursome spend the rest of the movie trying to get back together without losing too much face.

The thin plot allows plenty of space for scenes commenting on modern-day relationships – or, at least, among the thin band of urban yuppies the film centres on. Tian and the other three (pseudonymous) writers – Da Kuan 大宽, aka Hu Jiahao 胡嘉豪, from the second film, plus TVD writer Chang Jia 常佳, aka You Fei 游非, and actor Da Guang 大广, aka Ma Jingqi 马镜淇, who had a small part in the previous film – are better at observing the differences between the sexes in a lightly comic way than providing any deep insights about life and love, and the final stretch, with its laughably melodramatic finale between two of the characters (think: mangoes), is textbook TV drama. But when it’s working, the movie works very well, thanks to the excellent chemistry between the four leads and Tian’s direction that just lets the actors get on with their thing without any jazzy camerawork or unnecessary physical antics.

A good example comes early in the film: a leisurely, almost wordless sequence of the main couple reluctantly breaking up in the flat they’ve shared for so long that’s played almost like a silent movie. Many other later sequences also show the same sense of careful planning: a very funny six-minute sequence when the men go on a blind date with two weird twins, and the running joke of Zheng’s character and his ex always getting drunk and ending up in bed. Though the film is basically a collection of sketches, it’s held together by the actors’ chemistry as well as Tian’s improved technique.

Generally a pretty colourless actor, Han, 33, is better this time round than in the first film and is well paired with Mainland-born, Vancouver-raised singer-actress Yu Wenwen 于文文, 28, in her first main film role as his ex. However, the film drags in the final third when it concentrates more on their relationship – which turns into a conventional romantic drama – simply because the writers can’t think of anything original to say. Much more entertaining and unconventional is the relationship between Zheng’s character and the spunky coffee-shop owner played by Chengdu-born actress Zeng Mengxue 曾梦雪, also in her first main film role. Zheng, 31, who’s in his lothario element here, and Zeng, 23, who easily keeps up with him, spark on screen together, as a pair who love a drink or three and can read each other backwards. It’s their playing that really motors the film, and is missed when they’re off-screen. There’s also memorable support by another Sichuan actress, 24-year-old Luo Mi 罗米, from TV, in her film debut as a client’s niece who falls for Han’s character. (Her farewell speech to him in the street one night is especially notable for its mix of emotions.) Plus a wry cameo by Ma Le 马乐 as a pick-up artist who advises the luckless male leads.

Technically, the film is the best of the bunch, with carefully lit compositions by d.p. Huang and smooth scoring by Japan’s Kamada Toshiya 镰田俊哉 (music supervisor on splashy fantasy L.O.R.D: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties 爵迹, 2016) that adds some emotion in the final act. Though the final third has a draggy feel, the unexpectedly “mature” ending, with its double coda, somewhat redeems things. The location of the story is never specified, but the film was shot in Tian’s home city, Chengdu. For the record, the film has made almost 15 times that of EX-Files 前任攻略 (2014, RMB130 million) and 7.5 times that of Ex-Files 2: The Backup Strikes Back 前任2  备胎反击战 (2015, RMB252 million).

CREDITS

Presented by Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), New Saint Culture Communication (CN).

Script: New Saint Film Studio (Master Tian [Tian Yusheng], Chang Jia [You Fei], Da Kuan [Hu Jiahao], Da Guang [Ma Jingqi]). Photography: Huang Lian. Editing: Lin An’er [Angie Lam], Li Jiahua. Music: Kamada Toshiya. Art direction: Zheng Chen. Styling: Bai Xipo. Sound: Hu Liang, Liu Jia.

Cast: Han Geng (Meng Yun), Zheng Kai (Yu Fei), Yu Wenwen (Lin Jia), Zeng Mengxue (Ding Dian), Luo Mi (Wang Zi), Han Wenliang (Wang Xin), Ma Le (Ma Gou), Ye Ke’er (Ke’er/Chloe), Gao Xia (Wu, assistant), He Xun (younger twin), Tian Yusheng (chauffeur).

Release: China, 29 Dec 2017.