China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 91 mins.
Director: Zhang Tianhui 张天辉.
Half-baked crime mystery set among university elites is poorly cast and even more poorly written.
Nanyang city, Fujian province, southern China, the present day. Twenty-two-year-old Xia Zao’an (Chen Duling), a brilliant mathematics student at Nanyang University who has won a full scholarship from Princeton University in the US, is rushed to hospital early one morning after being found unconscious; luckily a compatible donor is found and an immediate heart transplant is performed. Some six months later she returns to university, where she’s publically welcomed back by fellow Princeton scholarship awardee Qin Yifan (Wang Duo), head of the elite students’ Reborn Society. To the annoyance of his girlfriend, Liang Xinyao (Wen Xin), Qin Yifan invites Xia Zao’an to the society’s dance, even though she isn’t a member. Xia Zao’an, whose mother died of heart disease before the age of 30, has deliberately cultivated few friendships as she fears she too won’t last beyond 30. Among her small circle are fellow students Mi Kaka (Hao Shaowen), who runs the almost member-less Inference Club, and tubby Bai Xuejiao (Song Zhouling), plus Zhou Weichuan (Jin Shijie), a former Princeton scholar and mathematics professor who’s now retired to run the university library and to whom Xia Zao’an attributes much of her success. The arrogant Qin Yifan spreads the idea that he and Xia Zao’an are a couple, as he sees her as his only intellectual equal, but she scorns the idea. One day a young man called Li Xiaochong (Lin Bohong) starts asking around about Xia Zao’an and finally tells her that her transplanted heart came from his best friend, Yi Tianjing, 19, who died earlier that night in an illegal motorbike race. Because of the huge coincidence of a compatible donor heart being available that same night at the same hospital, Li Xiaochong suspects Xia Zao’an’s father (Wang Gang) staged the accident, as Yi Tianjing was an expert biker who had never had a crash before. When Xia Zao’an confronts her father over Li Xiaochong’s theory, he says he received an anonymous letter listing 10 or so of the hospitals most likely to have a donor heart. Xia Zao’an suspects Yi Tianjing’s death was planned by someone able to hack into the national health database, and finally, with Li Xiaochong and Mi Kaka, investigates the quarters of the Reborn Society. She comes to believe Qin Yifan was somehow involved, using a theory of probability developed by 18th-century French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, that the future can be predicted by the use of enough Big Data.
A wannabe classy whodunit, set among mathematics geniuses at a fictional southern university, Inference Notes 推理笔记 ends up as a collection of half-baked ideas, devoid of any human drama or suspense, that seemingly tries to ape much better Japanese examples of the genre. Poorly cast, and even more poorly written, it throws everything into the pot – student movies, class differences, elitist intellectual puzzles, split identities and a crime mystery – but ends up as neither one thing nor another, despite the efforts of six writers and two script co-ordinators. The film has already died at the Mainland box office, taking only RMB9 million in its first three days.
The first mainstream feature of Fujian-born d.p.-writer-director Zhang Tianhui 张天辉, 35, co-writer of black crime comedy Cock and Bull 追凶者也 (2016) directed by Cao Baoping 曹保平, the film is technically adapted from the first of a series of manga crime novels known as Inference Notes 推理笔记 by the pseudonymous Zao’an Xiatian 早安夏天 (literally, “Good Morning Summer”), a Guangdong-based writer in his mid-30s. First published in 2010 as 推理笔记I 1/2傲娇侦探 (“Inference Notes I: 1/2 Proud Lovely Detective”, see left), it was heavily revised in 2015, but the major differences between the manga and movie still make the latter effectively an original work. (For a start, the manga is set at a senior high school, not a university.)
The story starts with genius maths student Xia Zao’an, 22, being rushed to hospital, where a compatible donor heart is conveniently found for her to have a transplant. Several months later she’s back at university but finds her future scholarship to Princeton University imperilled by rumours that her father was involved in illegal activities to acquire the donor heart. When a young man tells her the heart came from his best friend, whom he thinks was deliberately murdered, she ends up investigating the event, suspecting that the university’s other Princeton maths scholar, the wealthy and elitist Qin Yifan, was somehow involved. Ideas fly in and out of the script: Xia Zao’an thinks she’s taken on aspects of her donor’s personality, Qin Yifan sees her as his only intellectual equal and starts flirting with her, and the crime is seen as an exercise in determinism according to a theory by 17th-century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. There’s much talk of recondite theories, probability vs. determinism, instinct vs. intellect, love vs. game-playing and Big Data, and exotic formulae float across the screen to give the impression of something deep and significant.
But it’s all window-dressing for a very shallow screenplay that’s not helped by unconvincing performances. As the maths genius with a new heart, actress Chen Duling 陈都灵, 24, who made an impressive debut as the lead in student romance The Left Ear 左耳 (2015), is blank and unconvincing on every level, while floppy-haired actor-singer Wang Duo 汪铎, 26, who played one of the epicene dukes in motion-capture fantasy L.O.R.D: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties 爵迹 (2016), at least looks the part of an intellectually elitist fuerdai 富二代 (rich kid), despite being equally bland. As the donor’s best pal, Taiwan actor-singer Lin Bohong 林柏宏, 29, at least has some personality, but it’s left to his veteran compatriot, Jin Shijie 金士杰, to bring some brief heft to the film as a kindly professor-turned-librarian who’s the heroine’s de facto father figure. Comedian Hao Shaowen 郝劭文, also from Taiwan, provides some awkward lightness as a student with a Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe.
Technical credits are OK but nothing special. The southern coastal city of Xiamen, in Fujian province, doubles as the fictional Nanyang, but its attractions aren’t showcased to any extent. Both director Zhang and actress Chen come from Fujian and the setting also conveniently explains the accents of Taiwan actors Li and Hao. An online drama series with the same Chinese and English titles – also produced by Le Vision, but with a different cast and crew – started three weeks before the film’s release but is barely related (see poster, left). A better translation of the title would be “Notes on Reasoning”.
Presented by Le Vision Pictures(Beijing) (CN).
Script: Zhang Tianhui, Zhong Meng, Qiu Shengbin, Zeng Zhihao, Liu Xi, Mingxing Yu. Script co-ordination: Xu Xiaoqing, Zhou Zhenyu. Manga: Zao’an Xiatian. Editing: Deng Wentao. Music: Lin Hai. Production design: Shu Xingjia. Styling: Gao Fei. Sound: Tu Hao. Action: Wang Zhenming. Visual effects: Liu Yi.
Cast: Chen Duling (Xia Zao’an), Lin Bohong (Li Xiaochong), Wang Duo (Qin Yifan), Jin Shijie (Zhou Weichuan), Yu Xiaohui (university head), Wang Gang (Xia Jianguo), Hao Shaowen (Mi Kaka), Wen Xin (Liang Xinyao), Song Zhouling (Bai Xuejiao, Xia Zao’an’s chubby friend), Xirzat.
Release: China, 24 Nov 2017.