Saturday, September 25, 2021

Feng Xiaogang at Asia Society: If You Are the One

It was a 2008 blockbuster that helped herald the rise of Mainland China’s homegrown tent-poles, but being at the top of the domestic box-office was already a familiar place for Feng Xiaogang. After trying his hand at jingoistic spectacle, he returned to the sentimental melodrama that had been his bread and butter (yet his boldest work was still ahead of him). Millions of Chinese movie fans have seen it, but it feels a little dated thirteen years later and not just because of the flip phones. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why Ge You would be so interested in Shu Qi when they meet on a blind date in Feng’s If You Are the One, which screens online for free this weekend, as part of the Asia Society’s Feng retrospective.

Qin Fen is a middle-aged rogue who never amounted to much, until he sold a gimmicky invention to venture capitalist with more money than sense. Now ready to settle down, he places a personal add, because that sort of thing had not completely gone online yet. He has many blind dates that are uncomfortable in uniquely shticky ways, but his meeting with flight attendant Xiaxiao “Smiley” Liang takes the cake.

First of all, she is obviously way out of his league. She also seems to radiate a sense of sadness. Qin quickly decides they have no future and she agrees, but both reveal much of themselves over the course of their boozy “what the heck” conversation. In fact,
IYATO might have been considered a masterpiece if it had ended after his riveting confession, around the half-hour mark.

Instead, fate brings them together again and again after that. Eventually, Liang even pretends she is serious about a relationship and marriage, even though he knows she still pines for her caddish married lover. They share a connection, but if it isn’t love, can it still be enough?

With Xi currently engaged in a weird crackdown on celebrity culture and the Chinese film industry, it is suddenly amusing to watch films from not so long ago to pick out the things that might be troublesome now. We wish no ill on her, but we have to wonder how long Taiwanese thesps like Shu Qi can continue to star in Mainland at the level they did during the pre-Xi Jinping era.

Feng also satirizes China’s go-go deal-making mentality in a way that maybe isn’t so funny in the wake of the Evergrande meltdown. Unfortunately, some of the film’s best parts could now be at risk, including Qin Fen’s great early monologue, which speaks directly about lack of legal and practical equality for women in China. He also has a notable scene with Vivian Hsu, portraying a Taiwanese blind-date, with whom he discusses his gratitude for the assistance Taiwan offered during the Shenzhen earthquake.

Frankly, the humor in
IYATO isn’t very funny, but the chemistry between Ge and Shu Qi is quite potent, especially early on. In addition to Hsu’s brief but significant appearance, Ke Hu adds some good humor as the blind date that becomes Qin’s stock broker and Jun Zhu helps ground the film playing his old friend Wu Sang, a tour guide in Hokkaido. However, Wei Fan is truly cringe-inducing as the venture capitalist.

Even if you enjoy a good tear-jerking romance,
IYATO goes on much too long—not just because nothing can top Qin’s initial meeting with Liang. The entire film runs over two hours. At least cinematographer Yue Lu makes it look great, especially in the scenes along the Hokkaido coast. It is cheesy, but there are parts that work (and the price is right). Nowhere near Feng’s best—those would be Youth (screening the weekend of 10/8) and I Am Not Madame BovaryIf You Are the One offers one great scene and some guilty pleasures when it screens online through Monday afternoon (9/27), courtesy of the Asia Society.