Edge of Innocence
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 102 mins.
Director: Zhang Rongji 张荣吉.
Blend of crime mystery and obsessive love doesn’t deliver after an atmospheric first half.
Yuehai city, southern China, 10 years ago. Nineteen-year-old Kang Qiao (Huang Zitao) has moved down from the northeast to attend university but spends his time carousing on his motorbike, as he feels it’s his last sunmmer before adulthood. One day he has a crash, breaks a leg and ends up in hospital. In the next bed is a talkative old patient, Jiang (Feng Cuifan), who likes teasing their nurse Zhou Min (Zhu Zhiying). The only ones who know Kang Qiao is in hospital are his close friends – Zhu Li (Li Meng), a medical student whose father is hospital director, and Zhao Yi, who appears to have a secret liking for Zhu Li. Zhu Li takes great care of Kang Qiao but he treats her as just a friend. One day, while gazing out of the window, he sees a beautiful young woman (Yang Caiyu) in the house opposite and becomes obsessed by her, borrowing a small telescope from Zhao Yi. She appears to live with her wealthy parents (Zhang Guozhu, Ke Shuqin); Kang Qiao also sees the waiter (Mo Ziyu) from the nearby coffee house hanging around outside. One night Kang Qiao sees the young woman stab her father and then clean up the blood with her mother. Next day the carpet is sent for cleaning, and at night the daughter and mother bury a bag in the building site next door. Kang Qiao starts receiving text messages from someone with the avatar Xiaobai who seems to know everything that’s going on but will not reveal his/her identity. Kang Qiao questions the coffee-house waiter – whom he’d previously seen making love to his nurse one night in the hospital – but only learns he’s a friend of the family and their name is Xia. Kang Qiao hears from his nurse that he’s being moved to another room, from which he won’t be able to observe the house opposite; in protest, he discharges himself. In his flat he finds an anonymous note warning him to keep quiet about what he saw. After his leg has healed, he manages to gain entrance to the house, and explores the room of the young woman, whose name is Xia Yingying; he later follows her to work at a market-research company, Xinrui Group. After applying for a job as a street canvasser for the company, he finally talks to her and later invites her out for dinner. Immediately he receives a text message from Xiaobai, congratulating him on dating a murderess.
Despite an impressive first half that lays out its stall in a low-key, atmospheric way, Edge of Innocence 夏天十九岁的肖像 doesn’t live up to expectations. A murder mystery wrapped up in a tale of obsessive love, this third feature by Taiwan director Zhang Rongji 张荣吉 combines elements of his first two films – the attraction between two opposites in Touch of the Light 逆光飞翔 (2012) and the murder-solving investigation in Partners in Crime 共犯 (2014) – but doesn’t add any further depth. On balance, Partners is still Zhang’s best feature to date, though Innocence is still worth a look for its performances, especially by 24-year-old Mainland actor-singer Huang Zitao 黄子韬 (formerly with the group EXO) who, after a strong performance in Shanghai gangster movie The Game Changer 游戏规则 (2017), puts to rest his epicene image as a boybander.
As Kang Qiao, a restless young student who’s hospitalised with a broken leg and spies a young woman involved in a murder across the road, Huang is reined back (as in the later scenes of Game Changer) without being dull and moody, adequately conveying the 19-year-old’s curiosity that soon turns into a double obsession – to meet the mystery beauty herself and find out what happened that night. During the first half hour, when he’s confined to the hospital room, using a small telescope to spy on her, Huang is well supported by a small ensemble of Mainland actress Li Meng 李梦 (so good in Young Love Lost 少年巴比伦, 2015) as a med student who fancies him, Hong Kong veteran Feng Cuifan 冯淬帆 [Stanley Fung] as a garrulous old codger in the next bed, and Taiwan actress Zhu Zhiying 朱芷莹 as their enigmatic nurse. Along with Taiwan’s Du Tianhao 杜天皓 (in a nothing role as another student friend), there’s a real sense of complicity between the characters as they are drawn into Kang Qiao’s obsession with the who and the what in the house opposite. Stoking the mystery is that Kang Qiao then finds he is being spied on by someone who knows his every move.
If it all sounds a little like the Taiwan crime drama Zoom Hunting 猎艳 (2010), it doesn’t develop in a similar vein. When Kang Qiao leaves the hospital and finally meets the woman of his dreams, the movie becomes quite conventional, driven dramatically only by the question of who is spying on him and sending him taunting text messages (one of his friends? the coffee-shop waiter? the nurse?). The central relationship, between Kang Qiao and his dream woman, isn’t written with any special feeling nor played by Huang and Bangkok-born Thai Chinese actress Yang Caiyu 杨采钰, 25, with any notable chemistry (shades here of Yang’s previous outing, Love in the 1980s 1980年代的爱情, 2015). When the film returns to the crime story to tie up all the loose ends, it can’t recapture the simmering atmosphere of the opening half-hour, and the several Big Reveals (including the identity of the anonymous texter) carry little clout.
The film is based on an early novel, 夏、19岁の肖像 (literally, “Summer, Portrait of a Nineteen-Year-Old”, 1985) by prolific mystery writer Shimada Soji 岛田庄司 (of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders 占星术杀人事件 fame), few of whose writings have been adapted for the big screen, even in his native Japan. The script by Taiwan’s Li Jiaying 李佳颖, who recently co-wrote another Japanese crime adaptation, The Devotion of Suspect X 嫌疑人X的献身 (2017), as well as the Mainland-set The Left Ear 左耳 (2015), works only in short bursts after the opening section and, unlike Partners in Crime, lacks the architecture to sustain a sense of mystery or dread. Notably, her handling of the final section comes close to melodrama.
The most interesting aspect of the film is actually its provenance. Though 100% Mainland-funded, and with a story that’s set somewhere in the Mainland (the fictional southern city of Yuehai, by the sea), it looks and feels like a Taiwan movie, from its visual choices (coffee shops, motorbikes etc) to its generally “small” feel and naive romanticism. Hardly surprising, given the whole film was actually shot in Taiwan (Taibei and Gaoxiong), as well as written and directed by Taiwanese. Beyond that, however, and the Greater China cast, it smoothly integrates a truly international crew: Welsh d.p. Steve Lawes (who shot some episodes of the UK TV series Sherlock, and evokes the same sense of heightened reality here), Thai composer Terdsak Janpan, South Korean action director Yang Gil-yeong 양길동 | 梁吉泳, and Hong Kong editor Li Dongquan 李栋全 [Wenders Li].
The film’s Chinese title means the same as the Japanese novel’s. Mainland box office was a lame RMB9 million. Zhang also worked on Mayday 3DNA 五月天 追梦 (2011) but only co-directed (and shot) the band’s concert scenes, not the fictional episodes.
Presented by Desen International Media (Tianjin) (CN), Horgos Desen Pictures (CN), Desen International Media (Beijing) (CN).
Script: Li Jiaying. Novel: Shimada Soji. Photography: Steve Lawes. Editing: Li Dongquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Terdsak Janpan, Jin Peida [Peter Kam]. Art direction: Guo Zhida. Styling: Huang Yu’nan. Sound: Chen Yiwei, Narubett Peamyai, Traithep Wongpaiboon. Action: Yang Gil-yeong, Ju Yeong-min. Visual effects: Zhang Jiahua, Wei Lai (Beijing Treasure Tree Production).
Cast: Huang Zitao (Kang Qiao), Yang Caiyu (Xia Yingying/Zhang Yingying), Du Tianhao (Zhao Yi), Li Meng (Zhu Li), Zhang Guozhu (Xia Kun), Ke Shuqin (Xia Yingying’s mother), Feng Cuifan [Stanley Fung] (Jiang, old hospital patient), Zhu Zhiying (Zhou Min, nurse), Mo Ziyu (Zhang Wei, coffee-house waiter), Buleike, Zhang Jinhao (Xia family bodyguards), Lin Zhiru (police chief).
Release: China, 27 May 2017.