Monday, September 19, 2016

SoulMates: A Tale of Friendship and Internet Publishing

Web novels never really caught on here, but they are a big deal in China and Japan. There was a brief vogue for serialized e-books, but generally American readers want to hold the entire book in their hands (you take my word for it when it comes to e-book marketing). In contrast, readers in other markets seem to appreciate way web novels unfold without any guarantees—sort of like life. That is especially true of the hot new web-novel written by Li Ansheng (Anson)’s former BFF Lin Qiyue (July), transparently based on their lives. Li could really do without the resulting attention in Derek Tsang’s SoulMates (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Li was always the wild one and Lin was the responsible one, but somewhere along the way to their late twenties, they apparently switched. Now Li has a responsible office job and Lin is presumably in the wind, living the bohemian life she used to read about in Li’s postcards. They were inseparable through middle school or whatever it is called in China (it came with uniforms and military drills that neither were into). They were still closer than sisters in high school, but that is when the first fissure in their relationship occurred. His name is Su Jia-ming and he becomes a greater issue over time. Lin is crazy about him and it is mostly mutual, but he cannot help feeling attractive to her rebellious yet protective pal Li.

For a while they have sort of the reciprocal of Jules and Jim going on, but misunderstandings and distance will strain their friendships. Sadly, the few times the two women come together, it seems to drive them further apart. Of course, viewers will expect some dramatic revelations in the third act—and Li and Lin do not disappoint.

This could be derisively called a “chick flick” but the missing web novelist and her anticipated final chapter give it an intriguing air of mystery. As Macguffins go, it isn’t “Rosebud,” but it isn’t bad. In fact, SoulMate has a meta dimension that elevates the film well beyond standard tearjerkers.

Fortunately, Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun both bring their A games, convincingly suggesting the depth and tension of their relationship. There is a lot of integrity to their performances. These characters know exactly what to say to hurt each other and it makes us wince in sympathetic pain when they inevitably do. Of course, the camera absolutely loves them, which does not hurt either.

Somewhat surprisingly for such a contemporary urban drama set in the world’s most populous country, hardly any other supporting player gets any appreciable screen business aside from blandly handsome Toby Lee as the largely clueless Su. He is serviceable enough, but as the song says, you don’t want to be the mister who gets between these mega-watt movie star sisters.

There is no question Tsang (son of HK show biz institution Eric Tsang) is going for the heartstrings, but, believe it or not, he manages to surprise us at several junctures, with the assistance of a platoon of screenwriters (Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yi-meng, and Wu Nan adapting Qing Shan’s novel). If Beaches wasn’t weepy enough for you than SoulMate is in your power zone. Recommended for fans of Chinese melodrama, SoulMate opens this Friday (9/23) in New York, at the AMC Empire.