Taiwan/China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 127 mins. (Taiwan)/115 mins. (China).
Director: Niu Chengze 钮承泽 [Doze Niu].
Good-looking, multi-character Valentine’s Day movie, stronger in parts than as a whole.
Beijing, the present day. Disorganised real-estate employee Jin Xiaoye (Zhao Wei) is late for an appointment to show high-powered Taiwan businessman Mark Na (Zhao Youting), who has family roots in Beijing, round a traditional courtyard house he’s interested in buying. They end up in an argument and Jin Xiaoye injures her foot; at the police station they discover they’re both half-Manchurian in origin. In Taibei, Taiwan, film star Fang Rouyi (Shu Qi) has a row with her wealthy boyfriend, gallery-owner Lu Ping (Niu Chengze), and is “rescued” by hotel employee Li Xiaokuan (Ruan Jingtian), who she’d previously had a contretemps with on the street, and ends up sleeping on the roof terrace of his family’s restaurant. Li Xiaokuan’s younger sister Li Yijia (Chen Yihan) has discovered she’s pregnant by wannabe film director Kai (Peng Yuyan), boyfriend of her best friend Lu Xinni (Guo Caijie), daughter of Lu Ping. When Lu Xinni finds out Li Yijia wants an abortion, she works out the truth. In Beijing, Jin Xiaoye and Mark Na bump into each other at a meeting of the Manchurian Association but end up quarreling again. Jin Xiaoye has a dislike of Taiwan men, as the father of her seven-year-old son Doudou (Lin Muran) ran off to the island before he was born and she’s since raised him on her own. When Doudou goes missing, Mark Na helps in finding him up a tree; in order to coax him down, Jin Xiaoye is forced to pretend that Mark Na is the boy’s long-lost father, and prove it by kissing him in public. Back in Taibei, Kai tries to prove his love for Lu Xinni by jumping into a septic tank; meanwhile, Li Xiaokuan and Fang Rouyi become closer, as she needs a shoulder to cry on in her waning relationship with Lu Ping. And in Beijing, Mark Na and Jin Xiaoye also spend increasing time together.
After his epic study of young hoodlums in Monga 艋舺 (2010), Taiwan actor-turned-director Niu Chengze 钮承泽 [Doze Niu] does a 180° turn with Love 爱, an out-and-out Valentine’s Day crowdpleaser with eight characters and their emotional ups-and-downs. Though it’s co-financed by China major Huayi Brothers, and includes an odd-couple love story set in Beijing, Love still has the feel of a Taiwan movie with a Mainland section bolted on, not least because the two characters in the Beijing strand have no connection with the six inter-linked ones in Taibei. The irony is that that section is the best acted and most affecting – thanks to excellent chemistry between Taiwan’s Zhao Youting 赵又廷 [Mark Chao] (the hero in Monga) and China’s Zhao Wei 赵薇 (in her first role since her maternal lay-off) – whereas the Taibei sections, which form the majority of the movie, are pretty formulaic in a Taiwan-cute way.
Love is never less than a painless sit (especially in its slightly tighter, 115-minute Mainland cut) and is always easy on the eye (with summery Taibei photography by Taiwan ace d.p. Li Pingbin 李屏宾 [Mark Lee]). But like Monga, also co-written by Zeng Liting 曾莉婷, its script doesn’t match its multi-character ambitions. The faults are less noticeable here as Love is essentially a fluffy rom-com rather than a hoodlum mini-epic, with no deep-down drama at stake; but the rom-com genre is in many ways an even trickier genre to pull off successfully and, though the various strands finally start to come together in the final 20 minutes and each story is neatly wrapped up, there’s no big emotional wallop at the end to send the audience out onto the street. Instead, it’s a movie of enjoyable moments and individual scenes, rather than a cohesive whole.
The biggest pan-Chinese star in the film, Taiwan-born Shu Qi 舒淇, is okay as an actress who’s tiring of her money-oriented existence but is hardly stretched in the way she was in the recent A Beautiful Life 不再让你孤单 (2011); the same can be said for her compatriots Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] and squeaky-voiced singer-actress Guo Caijie 郭采洁 [Amber Kuo] (Peng’s tomboy co-star in Close to You 近在咫尺, 2010), while director Niu himself looked more at home as a gangster in Monga than he does as a wine-drinking sugar-daddy here. The best playing on the Taiwan side come from Ruan Jingtian 阮经天 (also good in Monga) as the stuttering film fan who gives Shu’s actress a shoulder to cry on, and from Chen Yihan 陈意涵 (the devoted younger sister in Hear Me 听说, 2009) as the pregnant younger sister of Ruan’s character.
But it’s the Beijing story that really bounces off the screen, and engages the emotions, in Zhao Wei and Zhao Youting’s playing of the odd couple who just can’t stop quarreling. The Beijing photography by Chen Jianli 陈建利 has a slightly more realistic edge which matches the sharper dialogue and Zhao Wei, looking slim-line and refreshed after her two-year maternal lay-off, handles both the comedy and romance with gusto, with Zhao Youting neatly underplaying the businessman. There’s also a benignly comic performance by Wang Jingchun 王景春 (the sympathetic father in 11 Flowers 我11, 2011) as a Beijing cop who functions as their de facto matchmaker.
A number of (largely Taiwan) names pop up in cameos – such as veteran writer-producer Xiaoye 小野 as a college lecturer – as well as other Monga cast members like Chen Handian 陈汉典, Huang Denghui 黄镫辉 and half-Welsh Feng Xiaoyue 凤小岳 [Rhydian Vaughan], who played the cocky Tom Cruise-lookalike in the previous film. Much of the dry humour in the dialogue doesn’t come fully across in the English subtitles, though this may be an impossible job to convey in writing.
Presented by Huayi Brothers (CN), Honto Productions (TW). Produced by Honto Productions (TW).
Script: Zeng Liting, Wang Qinan, Niu Chengze [Doze Niu]. Photography: Li Pingbin [Mark Lee] (Taibei), Chen Jianli (Beijing). Editing supervision: Zeng Liting. Editing: Su Peiyi, Lin Yongyi. Music: Chen Jianqi. Production design: Huang Meiqing. Costume design: Fang Qilun. Stylist: Xu Liwen. Sound: Zhu Shiyi, Du Duzhi. Visual effects: Zheng Yaoming. Special effects: Qi Wen.
Cast: Zhao Wei (Jin Xiaoye, single mother), Shu Qi (Fang Rouyi/Zoe, actress), Ruan Jingtian (Li Xiaokuan), Zhao Youting [Mark Chao] (Mark Na, businessman), Guo Caijie [Amber Kuo] (Lu Xinni), Chen Yihan (Li Yijia, Li Xiaokuan’s younger sister), Peng Yuyan (Kai, Lu Xinni’s boyfriend), Niu Chengze [Doze Niu] (Lu Ping, gallery owner), Long Shaohua (Mr. Li), Yu Meiren (Mrs. Li), Wang Jingchun (Ge Ting, Beijing policeman), Lin Muran (Doudou, Jin Xiaoye’s son), Kang Kang (trainer), Yang Guimei (Ling Meihui, Mark Na’s mother), Ding Jiang (Chen Shaowen), Li Xuan (Jiang Huanzhen), Xiaoye (college lecturer), Feng Xiaoyue [Rhydian Vaughan] (Zhilong), Chen Handian (paparazzi kid), Cai Changxian (Bai Hou/White Ape), Huang Denghui (Bo), Bu Xueliang (wedding host), Wei Boqin (Lu Ping’s drinking pal), Zhang Haiyan, Du Jiayi, Lu Mingjun, Zhu Zhiying, Huang Jianhe, Chen Yuxun, Li Jun.
Release: Taiwan, 10 Feb 2012; China, 14 Feb 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 10 Feb 2012.)