Just Try Me
China, 2012, colour/b&w, 1.85:1, 87 mins.
Director: Zhao Xiaotong 赵小僮.
Quirky, fantastical rom-com is inventive but lacks a solid emotional core.
Northern China, the present day. A beautiful 32-year-old woman (Yang Tongshu) tries to reimagine her love life with a happy ending. She takes a job at a typical factory in a typical town, living in staff accommodation. Hearing she’s single, her co-workers (Du Du, Zhang Ying, Wang Meng) try to interest her in the manager, Qian (Ji Bo), and then the two sons (Cheng Hui, Xia Yangyang) of the director, Qi (Liu Fengjiao). At a factory wedding banquet, she catches the bridal bouquet, gets drunk and, on the way home, is concussed while defending a man from some bullies. She wakes up in hospital, where her proud co-workers persuade her to apply for a public-heroism certificate, to bring glory to their factory. Meanwhile, the woman has fallen for the handsome hospital doctor (Mo Shaocong). Trying to keep their relationship a secret from her nosy neighbour in the next bed (Wu Yanyan), the woman secretly dates the doctor. All goes well – until his ex-wife (Guo Xiao) pops up. The woman starts her story again, this time with Qi’s two sons as her romantic targets. And then again, with manager Qian.
A first feature by writer-director Zhao Xiaotong 赵小僮, Just Try Me 关于爱情和那些魔鬼 is a quirky rom-com, about a thirtysomething woman looking for love, that’s best labelled as “experimental”. Strongly infused by Zhao’s background in theatre, it’s part sketch-like, part satire, and with the accent more on com than rom, with knockabout humour, verbal allusions and a whole bag of cinematic tricks from exaggerated perspectives, speeded-up motion and flashes of animation, plus a b&w silent-movie sequence thrown in for good measure. (Australian Gus Macmillan’s silent-movie band, Blue Grassy Knoll, contributed the score.) Set in the present but also spoofing a recent past of Mainland communal factory life, it’s a terrific showcase for 37-year-old actress Yang Tongshu 杨童舒 – better known for her TV work – that just lacks a solid emotional core beneath all its artifice.
Shot in the summer of 2010 but only released in spring 2012, the movie is typical of a type of Mainland comedy (like Party A, Party B 甲方乙方, 1997, by Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚) that’s set in workaday surroundings – here an industrial factory somewhere in northern China – but inhabits a world of imagination and fantasy. As Yang’s unnamed central character, known only as “beautiful woman”, tries repeatedly to reimagine her love life with a happy ending, the results are shown as a movie of her own construction, seen in a viewing theatre by her and her female workmates.
Just Try Me‘s source is the novella A Blank Sheet of Paper Can Be Used to Paint the Newest, Most Beautiful Picture 一张白纸可以画最新最美的图画, finally published in 2011, by Shandong writer Shu Ping 述平 (aka Wang Shuping 王述平), whose offbeat spirit informs the whole film. He’s consistently been behind some of the Mainland’s most adventurous movies, scripting offbeat comedy Keep Cool 有话好好说 (Zhang Yimou 张艺谋, 1997), Mr. Zhao 赵先生 (Lv Yue 吕乐, 1998), A Tale of Two Donkeys 走着瞧 (Li Dawei 李大为, 2008) and No Man’s Land 无人区 (Ning Hao 宁浩, prod. 2009, rel. 2013), as well as working regularly on directing projects by actor Jiang Wen 姜文 (Devils on the Doorstep 鬼子来了, 2000; The Sun Also Rises 太阳照常升起, 2007; Let the Bullets Fly 让子弹飞, 2010). The combination of Zhao’s staging and visual sense – nicely complemented by d.p. Tong Zhijian 佟志坚 (One Night in Supermarket 夜•店, 2009; One Wrong Step 无底洞, 2011) – and Shu Ping’s ideas makes Just Try Me an initially vivid experience.
At the end of the day, however, it’s no more than that, and runs out of steam in the final leg. Like the sand-painting main title that seems imaginative at the start but less so when it returns at the end, the movie is an entertaining doodle without a solid centre. Performances are all fine, with Hong Kong’s Mo Shaocong 莫少聪 [Max Mok] suitably cast as the woman’s romantic idol amongst the otherwise Mainland character actors. The film’s curious English title is not an improvement on the original Chinese, which literally means “About Love and Those Demons”. Shooting was around Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province, northeast China.
Presented by Beijing Lucky Dragon Film Culture (CN), Sunny Sky Culture Media Investment (CN). Produced by Shuangyashan Municipal Committee City Government (CN), Ministry of Public Security Golden Shield Film & TV Cultural Centre (CN), Beijing Lucky Dragon Film Culture (CN), Sixteen By Nine Pictures (CN).
Script: Zhao Xiaotong. Novella: Shu Ping. Photography: Tong Zhijian. Editing: Fang Lei, Zhang Jia. Music: Blue Grassy Knoll, Gus Macmillan. Art direction: Xia Chunxiao, Dong Hanxin. Costumes: Zhang Yan. Visual styling: Fan Xuemei. Sound: Wang Jing. Special effects: Zheng Wenjie. Visual effects: Xia Xiaochun. Animation: Xiao Yao, Fan Xiangnan, Huang Jianye, Zhuo Chenqing, Li Peng.
Cast: Yang Tongshu (beautiful woman), Mo Shaocong [Max Mok] (doctor), Wu Yanyan (hospital patient), Ji Bo (Qian, factory manager), Cheng Hui (elder Qi son), Xia Yangyang (younger Qi son), Du Du (fat woman), Zhang Ying (thin woman), Liu Fengjiao (Qi, factory director), Guo Xiao (doctor’s ex-wife), Hong Jiantao (main bully), Wang Meng (Wang), Zhang Naiou (Zhang), Shao Yueheng (thief), Li Jing, Ma Chao (other bullies).
Release: China, 1 Apr 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 31 Dec 2012.)