Should you still doubt it, 2013 was the year Chinese cinema boomed. Maybe not internationally (though looking at this year's BIFFF schedule, at least somebody here noticed), but locally there's been a true onslaught of new films released by first-time directors. Yi Wai De Lian Ai Shi Guang (Love Speaks) is my latest discovery and should appeal to those with a soft spot for romance, though you'll also need firm determination to hunt this film down.
Cherry-picking Chinese films is pretty much impossible. There are so many first-time directors, so many different visions and such a big flux in a quality that it's always a gamble when sitting down to watch one. Posters are often misleading, trailers are mostly experimental projects on the side that hardly reflect the final product. It's a hit and miss affair, then again it makes it all the more fun when discovering a little gem like Yi Wai De Lian Ai Shi Guang.
A little warning upfront: Yi Wai De Lian Ai Shi Guang is a pretty straight-up romance film. There is no surprise ending, no genre benders, no robots or zombies to hide behind when you admit to liking this film. Instead it's strung together by a bunch of genre cliché and conventions. Like any good genre film though, it's not about originality or surprise, but about the way it is executed.
The film follows Leqing, a young country girl who moved to the city to find love and success. Her future looks bright with a good job and a wealthy lover, but somehow her life lacks passion. This all changes when she meets Tong, a bright, if slightly unwieldy young man hoping to make it big with his camera service. The two hook up together when Leqing decides to surprise her future husband on a business trip, the rest you can probably figure out yourself.
While set in the city the film follows the visual template of other modern, slick-looking Chinese films. It looks nice alright, but just a little over-polished in places. But once Zhi sends his duo out into the countryside the atmosphere makes a complete u-turn. Sunny blues and green wash over the film, creating an almost paradise-like setting for love to flourish. Beautiful composition, superb use of lightening and absolutely stunning locations do the rest.
The soundtrack is a slightly different story. Although you can safely ignore the Chinese pop song underneath the trailer, Zhi never succeeds in making the film more compelling with the music at hand. It's not a bad selection of tracks, just a little bland and lifeless at times. While on the whole it's mildly effective, the soundtrack is far from memorable or defining.
My main reason for watching this film was Jaycee Chan's presence. Not that he's such a terrific actor (he is good though), but somehow he knows to pick his projects. With lead roles in Lee's Adventure and pk.com.cn (two of the smartest films to come out of China) his presence is usually a strong indication that a film is at least worth pursuing. Chan finds a perfect companion in Amber Kuo, a rising star who will no doubt end up in bigger productions very soon. The secondary cast never reaches the same heights, but they are little more than a footnote anyway.
The middle part of Yi Wai De Lian Ai Shi Guang is amazing, so the question that remains is whether Zhi was able to end the romance on a positive note. Genre conventions dictate that the duo must part ways again once their trip is over and returning to the city means leaving behind the charm of the countryside. Luckily Zhi manages to keep his ending rather tight, he doesn't dwell too long on sentimentality and delivers a warm, heartfelt and surprisingly down to earth finale. Mission accomplished.
If you don't like romance, don't even try this one because you'll end up hating all the clichés. But if you don't mind a little bit of coupling and you can look past the conventions you'll find a sweet, cute and endearing little film that charms its way past any remaining doubts. I hope this film gives Zhi enough credit for a second film, though I must admit that many of these first-time Chinese directors seem to disappear as quickly as they surfaced. Zhi definitely deserves his second chance though.