China, 2012, colour, 16:9, 89 mins.
Director: Tang Xiaobai 唐晓白.
Affecting story of surrogate motherhood is a welcome stylistic U-turn by director Tang Xiaobai.
A village near Guilin, Guangxi province, southern China, the present day. After enrolling his young son, Cheng Dazhuang (Qu Yi), in the best primary school in Guilin, Cheng Yonggui (Cheng Taishen) goes off on a short-term construction-site job in Guangdong province. At home his wife, Yunzhen (Liang Jing), has her hands full getting the pesky Dazhuang to attend school. Then one day, Dazhuang is killed in a car accident when he hitches a ride home on the truck of a neighbour, grocer He Man (Gao Jin). Yunzhen is distraught, as she cannot conceive any more children, and He Man’s wife, Li Qiaoyu (Yang Shuting), is ordered by the village chief to pay Yunzhen and Cheng Yonggui RMB120,000 in compensation. By selling all she has, Li Qiaoyu can raise only RMB18,800, and she still has hospital bills to pay for He Man, who’s bed-ridden with broken legs. When Cheng Yonggui visits He Man, the latter jokingly suggests that Li Qiaoyu should bear Cheng Yonggui a son in lieu of the unpaid compensation. Later, drunk, Cheng Yonggui visits Li Qiaoyu and rapes her, saying she owes him a life. When Li Qiaoyu becomes pregnant, an elaborate deception becomes necessary.
It’s always a long time between drinks for Mainland writer-director Tang Xiaobai 唐晓白; but with her third feature – after the semi-impressionistic Conjugation 动词变位 (2001) and way over-arty Perfect Life 完美生活 (2008) – she seems finally to have found a way of melding content and form in a way that engages a viewer’s feelings. Maybe it comes from co-writing with Han Jie 韩杰 (village black comedy Mr. Tree Hello！树先生, 2011), or maybe it comes from a general realisation that Perfect Life was an artistic dead end. Whatever the reason, All Apologies 爱的替身 has a very different look and feel from Tang’s previous grey, downbeat studies of Mainland life. Here the setting is scenic Guilin, shot in a cinematic but untouristy way by Hong Kong d.p. Li Yaohui 黎耀辉 [Lai Yiu-fai]; the film’s tempo is natural and unforced, with an easy flow to the early set-up; and the gentle score, by Lin Longjie 林龙杰, beefs up the emotion at key points, to notable effect in the final section.
Tang’s change of approach prevents Apologies from becoming a cerebral exercise like Life, whose isn’t-China-terrible story was only made bearable by its lead actress’ performance. Apologies is much more of a real ensemble, with cross-feelings registering on-screen and the whole story – of a young married woman, Li Qiaoyu, who bears a replacement child for a father whose son has died as a result of her husband’s car accident – given a genuine emotional hook. TV-drama actress Yang Shuting 杨舒婷 brings a quiet strength to the role of Li Qiaoyu, who gradually emerges as the film’s main character, and by the end has established a complicent chemistry with actor Cheng Taishen 成泰燊 (the cripple in Life) that’s quite affecting. It even raises the forbidden thought that maybe, just maybe, the two may establish some kind of permanent relationship.
The script – and Yang’s performance – doesn’t quite manage to make believable Li Qiaoyu’s jump from rape victim to surrogate mother, which needs a few extra scenes to really work. But without grandstanding all the obvious issues, the layered screenplay does create a conflicted character beneath her placid front: part rebellious (against her husband’s selfishness) and part dutiful (paying off a perceived moral debt), Li Qiaoyu ends up with the least but gains the most in self-respect. Cheng matches her performance in understatement, and the pair contrast neatly with their more emotional spouses, played against the grain by actress Liang Jing 梁静 (deglammed, as in Design of Death 杀生, 2012) and TV actor Gao Jin 高锦. It’s also worth noting a brief but sparky performance by child actor Qu Yi 曲艺 as the pesky child whose death causes all the trouble.
The Chinese title roughly means “A Substitute for Love”, or “Love’s Surrogate”, either of which is better than the current English title, which presumably refers to the 1993 Kurt Cobain song.
Presented by Sunny Sky Culture & Media Investment (CN), Beijing Xinghe Mingliang Media Investment (CN).
Script: Han Jie, Tang Xiaobai, Dong Fang. Photography: Li Yaohui [Lai Yiu-fai]. Editing: Zhou Qiang [Chow Keung], Baek Seung-hun. Music: Lin Longjie. Art direction: Guo Weilun. Sound: Dong Xu, Zhang Jia.
Cast: Cheng Taishen (Cheng Yonggui), Yang Shuting (Li Qiaoyu), Liang Jing (Yunzhen, Cheng Yonggui’s wife), Gao Jin (He Man, Li Qiaoyu’s husband), Ge Ge (Li Qiaoyu’s sister-in-law), Qu Yi (Cheng Dazhuang, Cheng Yonggui’s son), Tang Xi (sister), Chen Bing (Huang, manager), Yang Shu (village head), Zou Xi (Tie Niu), Xiao Ji’nan (primary-school teacher), Gao Yi’nan (assistant manager).
Premiere: San Sebastian Film Festival (Competition), 26 Sep 2012.
Release: China, 26 Mar 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 27 Sep 2012.)