It's been a while, but Yibai Zhang returns with a new feature film that does his reputation justice. He was one of the first directors to pull China's post-millennium cinema in a new direction, but the past couple of years he has been slightly adrift. I Belonged to You [Cong Ni De Quan Shi Jie Lu Guo] is a return to form for Zhang, not quite up there with his very best work, but nonetheless a worthwhile and rewarding film for those who have been enjoying his earlier films.
Zhang is the king of Chinese (urban) romance. He was one of the first to uproot his lead characters from their rural environment, instead granting them a nice, urban setting to thrive in. No more poverty porn, no more turning over every dime and getting by in their torn-down huts, instead we get a glimpse of China's modern city life, following relatively well off characters who can focus on their romantic problems rather than trying to make ends meet. A necessary change to tilt the balance towards romance rather than keep it as a side dish to the drama.
I Belonged to You is an adaptation of Bedtime Stores, an internet novel written by Jiajia Zhang (director of See You Tomorrow). The novel consists of several short stories, Zhang made a selection and tweaked them so they would fit into a single narrative. Don't expect an anthology treatment, while each of the stories has kept its unique appeal, the film itself plays like a normal feature film following a group of longtime friends, each dealing with their own romantic perils.
The main plot revolves around Chen Mo, a radio DJ down on his luck. After he got dumped by his cohost (on air), he scrambles to keep his life together. The fact that he's doing a lonely hearts-type show doesn't make it any easier. But when a new intern is assigned to him the ratings make a positive U turn and he sees the time fit to get his life back on the rails. Side plots involve a gullible nerdy character and a young inventor trying to get their romantic affairs in order.
Zhang's work has always had a very visual focus and in that respect I Belonged to You might be his best work to date. Superb use of color and lighting, a celebration of urban landscapes and slick camera work turn his latest into pure eye candy. It's as far away imaginable from the drab and dreary-looking rural miserabalism that has characterized the past 30 years of China's cinematic export to the West. A welcome change of scenery, even though the West doesn't seem quite ready for it yet.
The soundtrack too has a more modern edge to it, though it is a little on the poppy side. The original score is nice and moody (also slightly electronic-based), the pop songs in between aren't as solid though. But it speaks in Zhang's favor that he doesn't sideline the soundtrack. He places it front and center and forces it to play its part, which definitely pays off during the key scenes. With that in mind, the couple of Chinese pop songs are actually quite easy to ignore.
Acting-wise though, I felt Zhang failed to strike the right balance here. I understand the need to give I Belonged to You a more light-hearted feel, but reverting to caricatures and comical over-acting doesn't really improve the film. It's not so much that the actors did a bad job, it's that their style of acting just didn't do justice to the romance and the drama present. There are better ways to lighten the mood, then again this film is clearly aimed at the local market and I'm sure it did make a lot of commercial sense. Artistically though, it was a bad call.
On the whole I Belonged to You ended up a little uneven. Not all the subplots are equally engaging and not everything is equally effective. Luckily the central story is the strongest of the lot and pulls the film through. Whenever the balance appears to be slipping, Zhang tightens the focus and follows up with a strong, emotional scene. It's a precarious balance and depending on how forgiving you are regarding the soundtrack and acting your bottom line may be a little different, but ultimately I felt it worked.
Yibai Zhang's talent is beyond questioning. The stronger bits of his latest effort are stunning, dressed up in lush visuals and backed up by a strong soundtrack. But unnecessary caricaturization and cheesy over-acting do spoil the overall effect, if just a little. This balance between commercial appeal and artistic value is something Zhang needs to refine, but remembering some of the finer moments of I Belonged to You, it's not that hard to give him a pass. If you're interested in a modern Chinese romance, you could do a lot worse, actually getting your hands on it might prove a bigger challange though.