China has been a prime breeding ground for interesting movies this past year. While none of them truly fantastic, films like Wu Ren Qu, Gui Pin Che, Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu and Chun Chun Yu Dong have done a great job showcasing the variety, reach and creativity of China's new generation of film makers. Shen Dong's Timeless Love [Shi Guan Lian Ren] is the latest to join this list of overlooked gems and does so convincingly.
Timeless Love is a unique mixture of vastly different influences. Story-wise it's a tribute to Hollywood's Somewhere in Time. Meanwhile the film is executed like a classic Chinese crime/drama (think Zi Hudie, Feng Sheng or Qiu Xi) and mixed together like a modern Chinese romance. Due to this clash of classical and modern elements it's probably not all that weird that Baz Luhrmann's name flashed through my mind more than once. Dong did not just make a straight copy of Luhrmanh's style, still I felt that this film is at least loosely connected to the man's oeuvre.
Dong set out to make a bold film. The combination of drama, fantasy and romance is hardly subtle, but Dong compensates with a self-assured air that rubs off on everything he touches. You can call it kitsch if you want (and it would be hard to contest), but at least this is kitsch done right (again, the Luhrmann flashbacks). Chances are that this is going to be a love it or hate it film for most people, but I like that a lot better than a compromised vision.
Timeless Love follows the daydreams of a young Chinese girl. When she comes across the story of and old revolutionary, she wakes us the next day only to find herself stranded in his time period. The girl arrives right before her dream man is apprehended by the authorities. Slightly held back by the realization that changing the course of history might not be such a good idea after all, she rushes in to save him from his barren fate. It takes a second meeting for the two to get their act together, from there on out the film is one large build-up to the inevitable ending.
Visually there's a lot going on. Individual shots may uphold the impression that this is your typical classic Chinese crime drama (with strong framing and luscious coloring), but multiple split screens, quick cuts and agile camera work reveal an entirely different beast. Dong uses a whole arsenal of visual tricks to brighten up the film. Not all of it works as well as it should (CG shots are still a bit hit or miss), but when it does it's a real treat to behold.
The soundtrack is similarly outgoing. Judged by its own merits it's overly epic and sentimental, but within the context of the film it simply adds an extra layer of boldness. The music is explicitly present in all the major scenes, it's impossible to ignore and quite possibly uses every sentimental instrument and chord known to man, but somehow I just didn't mind all that much. On the other hand, if you're not falling for Dong's style, I wouldn't be surprised if this is one of the most grating soundtracks you'll ever come across.
Li Xiao-Lu (who looks an awful lot like Xun Zhou at times) does a good job as the rather naive yet headstrong lead. She balances the right amounts of cute and wilfulness to make her character work. Leon Williams falls a little flat as love interest, but all things considered it's Alex Fong Chung-Sun who truly shines as the cold-hearted general out to capture the couple. While his character is 100% evil and should yield no sympathy from the audience, it's difficult not to be impressed by his charm.
Timeless Love is the kind of film that keeps surprising with its lack of subtlety. Dong makes no effort whatsoever to balance the different genres and styles to create a homogeneous package, instead he sets out to make every aspect of the film the best in its kind. Surely not everyone is going to appreciate this choice, but I definitely applaud Dong's courage. It's about time directors realized that there's no written rule that says that a film set in the past should need to be coupled to a dusty cinematic approach. Again (and I promise this is the last time), Luhrmann has been resisting this mentality since his first feature, Dong follows proudly in his footsteps.
This is clearly not a film for everyone. Its style makes it quite light-hearted and frolicy , while the drama and romance are heavily accentuated. It's a kitschy package, but one that is executed with such vigour and enthusiasm that Dong won me over in no-time. If you're into Luhrmann's films and you can stomach the Chinese influences, you practically owe it to yourself to seek this one out. As always, that's easier said then done. Still, if you manage to get a hold of Timeless Love, you're in for a treat.