Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NYAFF ’09: Equation of Love and Death

Driving a cab might not be prestigious work, but it ought to serve LiMi’s needs perfectly. She is doggedly searching the city of Kunming for her boyfriend who mysteriously vanished several years ago. Unfortunately, the missing Fang Wen does not seem to want to be found in Cao Baoping’s Equation of Love and Death (trailer here), which screens today during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Li-Mi is cute and tough, but she has serious neurotic tendencies as Equation opens. She compulsively rereads Fang’s letters, obsessing over their dates, hoping to glean a numerological clue to his fate. Yet all she has to show for her efforts are some alarmed customers. One day, two lost souls from the countryside hail her cab, setting in motion a tragic chain of circumstances.

For reasons initially kept obscure, the provincial fares have a rendezvous with a hipster poet on a highway overpass. However, when their contact takes a surprising nosedive into traffic, it causes a nasty accident, ensnaring another man who happens to be a dead-ringer for Fang. Back in Li-Mi’s cab, the desperate yokels become increasingly belligerent, as Equation suddenly takes a detour into thriller territory.

Equation is the sort of film where everything and everyone are ultimately related somehow. However, rather than feeling forced, it all seems like the inevitable result of the film’s internal logic. Cao deftly stage-manages his intricately constructed tale of fickle fate, holding back a few genuinely surprising revelations for the third act.

In a deliberate departure from her glamorous image, Chinese actress Zhou Xun gives a tour-de-force performance as the hardboiled but vulnerable Li-Mi. Her uncannily expressive eyes are truly haunting, belying her gruff, street-smart exterior. Zhou owns the film, but she has some able support, notably from Zhang Hanyu, as an ostensibly sympathetic investigating officer, Ye Qingcheng.

Thanks to Zhou’s remarkable lead performance and Cao’s sensitive direction, Equation is a smartly constructed, richly rewarding film. Highly recommended, it screens today and July 1st at the IFC Film Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.