Saturday, March 17, 2018

MFF ’18: Love Education

When it comes to marriage, it isn’t the love or the memories that really matter. It’s the paperwork. Alas, Qui Huiying’s father was not particularly diligent at documenting his two marriages, but those were chaotic times in the Mainland provinces. As a result, Qui and her father’s first wife find themselves in a standoff throughout Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (fortunately also starring Chang herself), which screens during the 2018 Miami Film Festival.

After the death of her mother, Qui decides her parents should be buried together, even though that would mean exhuming him from the grave “Nanna” tends every day. In fact, the soon-to-retire teacher is convinced this was her mother’s dying request, even though her husband Yin Xiaoping and daughter Weiwei totally missed it. Determining legal standing in this case will be a tricky business. Grandpa and Nanna were joined in an arranged marriage, but he left their famine-wracked village a few months later hoping to find opportunity in the big city. There he met Qui’s mother, whom he married according to more modern and legal conventions. However, neither has the right kind of official court marriage license to prove their rightful custodianship of his grave.

Meanwhile, Weiwei was falling for Da, a brooding hipster bar singer, at least until his ex and her young son showed up on his doorstep. Their relationship might sound like it will parallel that of Qui’s parents, but Chang is too sophisticated a filmmaker for such simplistic one-to-one gimmicks. Indeed, it soon becomes clear their halting romance is very much their own.

Granted, Love Education is messy in both smart ways that are true to life and in less fortunate reflections of a somewhat untidy screenplay. However, it is enormously refreshing to see an emotionally mature relationship-driven film that features intelligently drawn, fully dimensional female and male characters. Clearly, Chang has a special knack for this kind of drama, having also helmed the exquisitely delicate Murmur of the Hearts.

Of course, she is also one of our greatest living actresses. Critics love to laud Dame Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon as more mature actresses who are still glamorous, but that should apply one hundred-fold to Chang (just check out her recent work in Office and Mountains May Depart). This time around, she still somehow manages to sneak up on us, charging ahead as the dutiful-daughter-tiger-mother in the first two acts—and then suddenly lowering the boom on us in key scenes down the stretch.

Likewise, the formerly banned filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhaung gives a lowkey performance as Yin, until he suddenly just pulls the rug out from under us. Lang Yueting nicely portrays Weiwei’s process of maturing and coming into herself, while Geng Le adds some intriguing flair as the actor-parent of one of Qui’s problem students.

Love Education is an intimate film that makes you fee like you are practically a member of Qui’s family. Yet, buried within, there is some thinly veiled critiques of China’s longstanding record of polygamous practices in rural areas, as well as the chaotic mid-20th Century ideological movements that left so many government records offices in a state of utter shambles. First and foremost, there is really terrific work from Sylvia Chang on both sides of the camera. Highly recommended for readers authors like Gail Tsukiyama and Lisa See, as well as Chang’s many fans, Love Education screens tomorrow (3/18), as part of this year’s Miami Film Festival.