Monday, April 25, 2022

Only Cloud Knows, on

Feng Xiaogang's return to weepy melodrama is sort of like his spin on Love Story. While Erich Segal’s bestseller was vaguely based on his famous Harvard classmates, Feng’s film was more specifically inspired by the tragic romance of his frequent collaborator Zhang Shu. In this case, love means having to sit through a lot of whale motifs in Feng’s Only Cloud Knows, which premieres Wednesday on

It is never explained why Simon Sui Dongfeng and Jennifer Luo Yun felt compelled to leave Beijing, but because they did, they somehow managed to find each other in Auckland. Eventually, Feng flashback to their courtship, but first we follow Sui as he travels back to remote Clyde, NZ, which is the first stop on his ash-scattering tour.

For fifteen years, he and Luo lived relatively happily, as the proprietors of the unlikeliest located Chinese restaurant. They are good-friends with their on-again-off-again waitress (and world adventurer) Melinda and dote on their adopted mutt Blue. Yet, there is a sadness to Luo that Sui never fully understands, until he embarks on this soul-searching errand.

Feng has made some great films like
Youth and I am Not Madame Bovary, but Only Cloud Knows is a perfect example of the tone deafness of Chinese soft power (as we traditionally consider it). In this case, there is little or no propaganda, but the unsubtle heartstring tugging is more likely to elicit cringes from Western audiences than tears. From the gauzy cinematography (at one point the characters even gather to gawk at the Southern Lights) to the treacly soundtrack, Only Clouds Knows is always way over the top, but never sufficiently self-aware to recognize that. It translates just fine, but it does not travel well.

Nor does it help that the leads, Huang Xuan and Yang Caiyu, though undeniable attractive, are quietly dull on-screen. Although Melinda is cloyingly “free-spirited,” Lydia Peckham’s portrayal is charismatic. Yet, probably the most compellingly performance (after Blue) comes from Feng-regular Xu Fan, who is relentlessly touching as Ms. Lin, the couple’s landlady in Auckland.

Ironically, the drama that really lands involves the decline and death of their loyal Blue. Critics deride this sort of storyline as a cheap play on viewers’ emotions, but the truth is the death of a beloved pet is often the biggest trauma an average family might endure in a given year. Yet, the subject is shunned as the stuff of children’s movies.

At least
Only Cloud Knows handles that well. Unfortunately, it also wallows in endless whale symbolism (sort of being Luo’s “spirit animal”), as well as the symmetrical meaning of their names, “Cloud” and “Wind,” and Sui’s pathos-drenched flute-playing. Feng and screenwriter Zhang Ling are often nakedly manipulative, but too often they steer the film into cheesiness. Not recommended, Only Cloud Knows starts streaming Wednesday (4/27) on