52Hz, I Love You
Taiwan, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Wei Desheng 魏德圣.
Wannabe charming musical is capsized by blah songs, unmemorable staging and too much Taiwan cute.
Taibei, 14 Feb, Valentine’s Day. In the early morning Xiaoxin (Zhuang Juanying), owner of a florist’s, visits an out-of-town flower market to buy blooms for one of her busiest days of the year. At 07:00 Xiao’an (Lin Zhongyu), an apprentice baker, calls his friend, municipal employee Leilei (Chen Meixi), to wake her up as she requested; he secretly loves her, though she only looks upon him as a friend. Unattached, Xiaoxin feels lonely on Valentine’s Day; so too does her aunt (Zhao Yonghua), also unattached, who helps out at the flower shop. On her way to work by scooter, Leilei thinks about the boring relationship she’s been in for the past 10 years with music-shop owner/songwriter You Dahe (Jiang Shengmin). At Xiaoxin’s shop, happy lesbians Qiqi (Zhang Rongrong) and Meimei (Li Qianhua) stop off to buy flowers en route to a mass wedding ceremony blessed by the city’s mayor. After they leave, the man-less Xiaoxin, who’s 33 but feigns 25, is consoled by her aunt. Next in the shop is You Dahe, who orders red roses to be sent to a French restaurant at 19:00 that evening. On his way to his music shop, it rains and shines but You Dahe is happy; at the mass wedding, which is partly rained off, Leilei, who’s in charge of the event, is less happy as she still ponders her relationship with You Dahe. She tells Qiqi and Meimei they can only be observers, not participants, as gay marriage is illegal in Taiwan. At work Xiao’an is told by his boss Dong (Lin Qingtai) to stop being downcast over his unreciprocated love for Leilei. Then, while out on deliveries, Xiao’an is knocked off his scooter by Xiaoxin in her van. And on the metro, Dong and Xiaoxin’s aunt happen to sit next to each other.
Like the whodunit, the musical is not a genre that’s native to Chinese cinema, as both the incoherent Showtime 用心跳 (2010) and wannabe retro The Rooftop 天台 (2013) have recently shown. (It also seems to have a curse on it: the makers of both those films, Hong Kong’s Guan Jinpeng 关锦鹏 [Stanley Kwan] and Taiwan singer-actor Zhou Jielun 周杰伦 [Jay Chou], have directed nothing since.) Joining the pile-up is 52Hz, I Love You 52赫兹 我爱你, a wannabe musical comedy set in a wish-fulfilment Taiwan about unloved individuals on Valentine’s Day. It’s written and directed by Taiwan’s Wei Desheng 魏德圣, 48, who’s described it as “afternoon tea and cakes” after the “big meals” of period aboriginal drama Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱 (2011, which he wrote, directed and co-produced) and period baseball movie Kano (2014, which he co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced). In fact, it’s more like being force-fed a huge helping of meringues full of fake cream.
Only Wei’s third feature as a solo director, following the surprise box-office hit Cape No. 7 海角七号 (2008) and high-profile but barely profitable Warriors, it’s his slickest production on a technical level and has a few moments of its own near the end; but it’s capsized by an overload of Taiwan cute, unmemorable staging of the musical numbers, and banal, tuneless songs. Locally it earned back only half of its reported NT$80 million budget – or to put it another way, less than a tenth of Cape a decade ago. A brief Mainland release five months later brought in only a miniscule RMB1.4 million.
Wei has had some experience with music in film – between its old-love-letters plot, Cape was basically a putting-on-a-rock-concert movie – but there’s some difference between a production with a few songs and a full-scale musical, especially one as highly designed as 52Hz. Not only is the whole film set in an idealised, brightly coloured Taibei but also there’s relatively little straight dialogue: officially there are 17 songs, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes on screen, but they seem to come thick and fast during the first hour or so and, combined with the underscoring, almost make the film into a continuous musical.
The attempt at a Jacques Demy-like, popular-operatic style helps to underpin the deliberately artificial setting; but it’s also a perilous undertaking that requires a real feel for the genre that Demy had but Wei lacks. It also needs tip-top staging, choreography and music, none of which 52Hz has: the lyrics (all by Yan Yunnong 严云农) aim at rhymeless, everyday dialogue, while the music (largely by veteran music producer/composer Li Zhengfan 李正帆) doesn’t have one memorable tune or rhythmic figure.
The one area in which 52Hz does succeed is in the singing, which makes it an even bigger shame that the songs are so blah. As well as actors Wei has worked with in the past, the cast is stuffed with Taiwan singers, from relative veterans like Fan Yichen 范逸臣 as a band vocalist and Li Qianna 李千娜 as a girly lesbian bride to newer names like Zhuang Juanying 庄鹃瑛, 32, from former duo Katncandix2 棉花糖. Making her film debut as a kooky flower-shop owner, the jolie-laide Zhuang steals the whole show in a genuinely charming and likeable performance, putting her colourless, meet-cute partner Lin Zhongyu 林忠谕 (lead singer of Cosmospeople 宇宙人) completely in the shade, making her female co-star Chen Meixi 陈玫希 (originally from girl group Roomie, and also making her film debut) seem uninteresting, and giving veterans like 50-year-old Zhao Yonghua 赵咏华 (also in her film debut), a run for her money as her aunt.
Among the male singers featured, the most characterful is aboriginal Jiang Shengmin 姜圣民 [Suming Rupi] in his first major film role as Chen’s hopeless screen partner, a character he invests with some humour and charm, partly by speaking Hokkien-accented street Mandarin. (Unlike Wei’s previous two films, 52Hz‘s dialogue is all in Mandarin, with no Hokkien or other local dialects.) In a smaller role, Warrior‘s lead, aboriginal actor Lin Qingtai 林庆台 [Nolay Piho], cuts a dignified presence, and local indie icon, half-French actress Zhang Rongrong 张榕容 [Sandrine Pinna], has some fun as the butch partner of Li’s girly lesbian.
Zhang’s performance is just as well, as the sapphic couple are shoehorned into the film for no other reason than to make a PC point about gay marriage, even getting their own song about being “different but alike” (Reflection of the Mirror 镜子里的你 镜子外的我). Other lyrics are either blindingly obvious (The Debt of Love 爱情卡债, sung by Chen; Sun Rain 太阳雨, sung by Jiang and Chen) or have no point at all. Putting an official Taibei stamp on the whole thing is a cameo by the city’s real mayor, Ke Wenzhe 柯文哲.
Only occasionally, as in two song montages that showcase the main ensemble (the rousing In and Out of Love 开门关门, plus Cupid Needs Love 丘比特也要爱), does 52Hz show what it could have been as a musical; and only at the end, in the final scenes in a ritzy French restaurant, does it hint what it could have been as a decently written romantic comedy. Alas, the only relationship that tries for any emotional depth is that between Chen and Jiang’s characters but, after their restaurant bargy, the script shows its shallowness in a way-over-long car-park scene between the couple.
Photography by Qin Dingchang 秦鼎昌 (Hear Me 听说, 2009; Cape; Warriors) is of a high standard, though doesn’t achieve a smooth match between stylised, candy-coloured interiors and more plainly lit exteriors. Unlike in Cape, editing by regular Su Peiyi 苏珮仪 is tight. Visual effects in a number following Zhuang and Lin’s meet-cute scene are just so-so, and don’t achieve the magic that seems intended. The film’s title, which is the same in English as in Chinese, refers to the real-life whale discovered by scientists that transmits on a different frequency from others and has thus been dubbied the world’s loneliest.
Presented by CMC Entertainment (TW), Great Dream Pictures (TW), Ko-Hiong-Lang (TW), ARS Film Production (TW), 52Hz Production (TW). Produced by 52Hz Production (TW).
Script: Wei Desheng, You Wenxing, Su Da [Soda Voyu]. Photography: Qin Dingchang. Editing: Su Peiyi. Music: Li Zhengfan, Li Wang Ruohan, Ma Nianxian, Xiao Heshuo, Jiang Shengmin [Suming Rupi], Fan Yichen. Lyrics: Yan Yunnong. Music direction: Li Zhengfan. Production design: Weng Ruixiong. Costume design: Deng Liqi, Lin Xinyi, Du Meiling. Sound: Du Duzhi, Wu Shuyao. Visual effects: Chen Wanrong.
Cast: Zhao Yonghua (Xiaoxin’s aunt), Lin Qingtai [Nolay Piho] (Dong, Xiao’an’s boss), Zhang Rongrong [Sandrine Pinna] (Qiqi, lesbian bride), Li Qianna (Meimei, lesbian bride), Zheng Weida (Xiaoxin’s younger brother), Sun Rui (girlfriend of Xiaoxin’s younger brother), Chen Meixi (Leilei), Jiang Shengmin [Suming Rupi] (You Dahe), Ma Rulong (husband in restaurant), Pei Xiaolan (wife in restaurant), Zhuang Juanying (Xiaoxin), Lin Zhongyu (Xiao’an), Fan Yichen (band’s lead singer-guitarist), Ying Weimin (band’s drummer), Ma Nianxian (band’s bass guitarist), Li Minxiong (band’s keyboardist), Tanaka Chie, Lin Xiaopei (restaurant waitresses in black), An Yiqiao (restaurant waitress in yellow-brown waistcoat), Ke Wenzhe (himself, Taibei mayor),
Release: Taiwan, 26 Jan 2017.