China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Directors: Zou Xian 邹佡, Zhang Buniu 张卜牛.
Romantic drama of two soulmates fated to remain apart always looks great but always is uninvolving.
Beijing, 1976, summer. Aged four, An Ran says goodbye to her doctor mother (Che Xiao), who is leaving with a medical team to help in the Tangshan earthquake. Her mother never returns. In 1982, at primary school, An Ran (Shi Xinyi) meets poor fellow pupil Zhao Yongyuan (Shi Pengyuan), who is raised by his maternal grandmother (Li Wenling). The two become friends but one day he leaves for Guangdong with his maternal uncle Ji (Lin Xue) without leaving any message. In 1993 Zhao Yongyuan (Xie Tingfeng) returns to Beijing with his uncle and works in a market selling clothing. One day, Zhao Yongyuan recognises An Ran (Gao Yuanyuan) in the market and follows her to a school where she is learning English in preparation for going to Columbia Medical School, New York, for further studies. To the chagrin of another market trader, Li Xiaojun (Luo Shi), who fancies him, Zhao Yongyuan goes out with An Ran and eventually kisses her. But she suddenly backs off and refuses to see him again. When she finally gets her US visa and is about to leave, they meet and make love. Afterwards, she tells him she’ll stay in Beijing, and they arrange to meet the following evening. However, Zhao Yongyuan doesn’t show up; instead, his old school friend, Sun Yuejin (Du Haitao), tells her to go to the US, as Zhao Yongyuan doesn’t love her. An Ran is devastated. In New York, where she has a part-time job at a restaurant, she collapses and has a miscarriage; a Chinese painter friend, Michael (Qin Hao), takes care of her. (In fact, Zhao Yongyuan had been arrested that evening for illegal currency dealings and spent a year in prison. For her own good, Sun Yuejin had pretended Zhao Yongyuan didn’t love her.) In 1997 Zhao Yongyuan, now a wealthy clothing entrepreneur, arrives in New York with his business partners Sun Yuejin and Li Xiaojun (who are now married to each other) to do a deal with a New York clothing company. He traces An Ran via some paintings of her by Michael, who has already split up with her; but when they meet she doesn’t want to know him. Eventually, however, An Ran forgives Zhao Yongyuan and they make love again. But then Michael re-appears and an accident affects all their lives.
A long-limbed love story spread over two decades and two cities, But Always 一生一世 never looks less than fabulous thanks to eye-catching work by d.p. Li Bingqiang 李炳强 in Beijing and New York, and two glamorous leads in the forms of Hong Kong’s Xie Tingfeng 谢霆锋 [Nicholas Tse] and China’s Gao Yuanyuan 高圆圆. But as a romantic drama of two people who seem fated for each other but are mostly kept apart, it has minimal emotional traction, thanks to a screenplay that moves its characters around at its own convenience, a lack of chemistry between the leads, and dialogue that’s purely formulaic.
Co-directed and co-written by Zou Xian 邹佡 (a former production manager) and Zhang Buniu 张卜牛 (scenic love story The Memorized Forest 记忆森林, 2013), with input from Hong Kong journeyman Liu Haoliang 刘浩良 (Painted Skin 画皮, 2008), it appears to contain autobiographical elements by Zou, who wrote the main story, was born in Beijing around the time of her lead characters, and spent time in New York as a student (at Pace University). Under the aegis of skilled producer Zhang Yibai 张一白, Zou and Zhang Buniu are surrounded by an experienced crew, including Hong Kong’s Mai Yonglin 麦咏麟 [Gary Mak] as executive director, that ensures a smooth technical ride. The problem is that the plot has an entirely manufactured feel, attempting to be part historical survey (1976-2001), part underlining of the Chinese Dream vs American Dream, and part fatalistic romance, capped by a surprise twist that’s totally gratuitous. All of those elements now regularly appear in Mainland productions – especially the mirage of the American Dream now that China is strong enough to offer its own version – and But Always doesn’t add anything new or persuasive.
The first half, set in Beijing, is the best, with primary- school friends An Ran (Gao) and Zhao Yongyuan (Xie) reunited after a decade when she is a medical student preparing to study overseas and he is a market trader working a clothes stall with his uncle from Guangdong. Somehow recognising each other after so long – a running joke is that he can recognise her footfall before she even appears – they briefly embark on a romance only to be separated again for four years, during which time she moves to New York and has a miscarriage and he briefly goes to prison, learns English, becomes a wealthy businessman and swots up on fine wines. The second half, in the Big Apple, is rote melodrama, with TV-style plot reversals, lots of talk about love and duty, and a desire to quit the “steel jungle” of New York for modern Beijing.
Never a very giving actor, Xie is at his coolest and most circumspect as the pockfaced kid-turned-handsome businessman, while Gao, a considerable actress with the right material, manages to look stunning and soignee even when torn emotionally. But they’re star performances in a vacuum, despite the striking widescreen visuals by Li (Two Great Sheep 好大一对羊, 2004; Zhang Yibai’s Fleet of Time 勿勿那年, 2014) that celebrate old-style hutong life in Beijing and the cold canyons of Manhattan with equal brilliance. Supporting performances are warmer, from the grabby best friend of actor Du Haitao 杜海涛 to the spikey market trader of actress Luo Shi 洛诗, with side additions by Taiwan veteran Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao] as An Ran’s caring father and Hong Kong’s Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet] as Zhao Yongyuan’s noisy Guangdong uncle. China’s Tong Dawei 佟大为 pops up in a comic cameo as An Ran’s horny English teacher and Qin Hao 秦昊 broods darkly as a dysfunctional Chinese American painter who cares for her.
The warm score by Wang Zhiyi 王之一 complements d.p. Li’s copious light-play (especially for scenes of An Ran’s feelings) and the whole paraphernalia of romantic rainfall, umbrellas and passing seasons. As a pure wallow, But Always is often a persuasive package, but is too often undercut by the corniest imagery, such as a crucial reconciliation next to a street sculpture proclaiming “LOVE”. (Really.) The film’s Chinese title is a phrase meaning “a whole lifetime.” Mainland box office was a solid RMB228 million.
Presented by Emperor Film & Entertainment (Beijing) (CN), Dadi Century (Beijing) (CN), Wanda Media (CN), Zhejiang Blue Sky Media (CN), Golden Globe Pictures (CN). Produced by Dong Yang Emperor Film & TV Production (CN), Kozmo Production (CN).
Script: Zou Xian, Zhang Buniu, Liu Haoliang. Additional script: Mai Tianshu. Original story: Zou Xian. Photography: Li Bingqiang. Editing: Li Mingwen, Zhang Jia. Music: Wang Zhiyi. Art direction: Li Jingze (China), Clara Alvarez (US). Costume design: Zhang Zhaoda (China), Jamie Grace (US). Sound: Qi Liyong, Max Futterman. Visual effects: Qian Yu (JD-Rema). Executive direction: Mai Yonglin [Gary Mak].
Cast: Xie Tingfeng [Nicholas Tse] (Zhao Yongyuan), Gao Yuanyuan (An Ran), Du Haitao (Sun Yuejin), Luo Shi (Li Xiaojun), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Ji, Zhao Yongyuan’s uncle), Che Xiao (An Ran’s mother), Li Wenling (Zhao Yongyuan’s grandmother), Shi Pengyuan (Zhao Yongyuan, aged nine), Shi Xinyi (An Ran, aged nine), Tong Dawei (English teacher), Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (An Ran’s father), Zang Tianshuo (nightclub singer), Qin Hao (Michael), Wu Anya (travel-agency boss), Gao Xia (An Ran’s friend).
Release: China, 5 Sep 2014.