Rest on Your Shoulder
China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 120 mins.
Director: Zhang Zhiliang 张之亮 [Jacob Cheung].
Magical romantic fantasy is better suited for ingenuous youngsters than picky adults.
Moon Island, China, the present day. Famous botanist Yan Guo (Chen Kun), who is researching the medicinal properties of the phalaenopsis orchid, and his fiancee Baobao (Jiang Yiyan) plant a seed as a token of their love in a magical spot and it blooms. However, Yan Guo suddenly falls ill from a nervous allergy and when Baobao goes back to the site to retrieve the flower for the doctors she finds it has withered. The god Eros appears and says it wasn’t he who made the flower bloom, as it’s not even the right season. Baobao offers her life in return for Yan Guo’s and Eros does a deal: she is to wait three years before seeing Yan Guo again, to find out whether his love for her is worth her sacrifice. Meanwhile, Yan Guo recovers and convalesces at home, thinking Baobao is dead. In fact, she has morphed into a butterfly and is watching him through the window of his cottage. The following spring Baobao wakes up after her winter hibernation and befriends a ladybird, grasshopper and two butterflies, Fei and Shuang, who help her find Yan Guo’s cottage again. She sees him working with young student Bai Lan (Gui Lunmei), who happens to be allergic to butterflies. Baobao follows around Yan Guo, who lets her rest on his shoulder, unaware that the butterfly is really Baobao. When Yan Guo is chosen as Man of the Year, journalist Yang Lin (Liang Yongqi) arrives to interview him. The following spring, when Yan Guo returns to his cottage, Yang Lin helps him when the place is flooded, and Baobao watches as the two become closer. Suddenly, however, government scientists – alerted by Yang Lin’s photos of dying plants – arrive to evacuate Moon Island and disinfect it.
It’s easy to be cynical about Rest on Your Shoulder 肩上蝶 but for young audiences prepared to take the leap into its idealised, modern-fairytale world this Mainland-funded movie directed by Hong Kong’s Zhang Zhiliang 张之亮 [Jacob Cheung] has much to recommend it. The photography by veteran Hong Kong d.p. Lin Guohua 林国华 [Ardy Lam] of locations in China (Zhejiang) and Japan (Hokkaido’s Canadian World Park) has a luscious, burnished look and deliberate absence of place; the visual effects, supervised by Hong Kong’s Zheng Yaoming 郑耀明, are suitably magical; the 3-D animated insects pass muster on a technical and character level; the 2-D cartoon sections are charming; and the tuneful score by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi 久石让 knits the whole thing into a warm, romantic fantasy. The problems of the film, shot in late 2009, stem almost entirely from the script [based on a very short 2003 online story, 你的肩膀上有蝴蝶吗？ (“Is There a Butterfly on Your Shoulder?”, by Fu Yupeng 傅玉蓬], which can’t decide what it wants to be and thrashes wildly in every direction trying to be all things to all audiences.
After starting off as a very Asian love story, with a fantastical element – girl becomes a butterfly for three years to test the love between her and her boyfriend – the movie veers off into kiddie territory with animated talking insects before veering off again into a kind-of-romantic triangle between the boy and two more girls, and then climaxing in a kind-of-ecological drama. In his previous Mainland-set movie, Ticket 车票 (2008), writer-director Zhang mixed pretty scenery with sledgehammer messages and some of this approach also afflicts Shoulder, which loses its main focus – the strength of the love between the boy and the morphed girl – for long stretches, as it tackles the environment, science, and various other characters.
Many of the script problems could be partly remedied by chopping half-an-hour from the over-long running time, though several structural problems would still remain – chiefly the fact of too many female characters competing for a weak male lead’s attention. As the girlfriend who turns into a butterfly, Jiang Yiyan 江一燕 (One Summer with You 与你同在的夏天, 2004; Deadly Delicious 双食记, 2008) gets little screen time, and is mostly heard in voiceover, while Hong Kong’s Liang Yongqi 梁咏琪 [Gigi Leung], 35, shot mostly at a distance to make her look younger, and Taiwan’s Gui Lunmei 桂纶镁, again stuck in a cute, bicycling role not much more developed from her debut a decade ago in Blue Gate Crossing 蓝色大门 (2002), both seem stranded in foggily drawn characters. At the centre, Mainland heartthrob Chen Kun 陈坤 (Baober in Love 恋爱中的宝贝, 2004; The Knot 云水谣, 2006) provides few virile reasons for the women’s interest in him.
Though Zhang, now in his early 50s, has worked in a variety of genres, and can bring an ingenuous point-of-view to romantic material (Beyond the Sunset 飞越黄昏, 1989; Intimates 自梳, 1997), his best work has actually been with tougher subjects (Cageman 笼民, 1992; A Battle of Wits 墨攻, 2006). Shoulder‘s most suitable audience will be Asian kiddies and young adult fans of Chen who will be carried by the movie’s magical sweep (which, when it works, is considerable) rather than pick holes in its untidy script and episodic structure.
Presented by Straw Family (CN). Produced by Straw Family (CN), Strawbear Workshop (CN).
Script: Zhang Zhiliang [Jacob Cheung], Yang Baowen. Online story: Fu Yupeng. Photography: Lin Guohua [Ardy Lam]. Editing: Kuang Zhiliang. Music: Joe Hisaishi. Art direction: Hiroki Kaneko. Costume design: Lin Peiyi. Sound: Yang Jingyi, Zhang Bin, Wang Di. Visual effects: Zheng Yaoming (3Plus Animation Production). 2-D animation: Straw Family.
Cast: Chen Kun (Yan Guo), Liang Yongqi [Gigi Leung] (Yang Lin), Gui Lunmei (Bai Lan), Jiang Yiyan (Baobao), Xu Shaoxiong (middle-aged man), Li Ying (middle-aged woman), Zhang Jianhua (middle-aged male volunteer), Jiao Junyan (younger female volunteer), Zhang Zhengyan (young man), Yang Lixiao (young woman).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Competition), 16 Jun 2011.
Release: China, 8 July 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 23 Jun 2011.)