China is moving up in the world. Not just economically, for a while now they've been greatly expanding their cinematic output. More genres, more unique visions, more international appeal. If it happened 10 years ago they would've been the talk of cinema geeks around the world, sadly Asian cinema is in an international slump and for now they're facing a cold shoulder. A sad situation as films like Lips and Soul [Chun Chun Yu Dong] are a good indication of the hidden gems that lie waiting for international recognition.
For a while now China has been struggling to position its slick and modern slices of cinema, unable to find a good (and bankable) balance between niche arthouse projects (Lee's Adventure, pk.com.cn) and poppy bubblegum cinema (Wan Mei Xin Niang, Bang Jia Bing Ji Ling). Lips and Soul is the first Chinese film I've seen that seems able to unite these two very different worlds, a bit like what Nakashima accomplished with Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls).
That's not the only thing reminiscent of Nakashima's breakthrough film though. The whole setup of Lips and Soul is quite similar, with two very different girls hooking up to share the rent of an apartment. One girl is the sweet and caring lolita type, the other one is rawer, edgier and more rebellious. This leads to quite a lot of tension early on in the film, but obviously the two eventually start to warm up to each other.
Storywise the film is pretty flimsy. The strong tension between the two women is food related (so beware, Asian food film alert), as one loves to cook while the other is anorexic. Some extra drama is added in the form of dying grandmothers, annoying boyfriends and bad parent relationships. But nothing too depressing or serious, the light-hearted atmosphere prevails and Lun keeps the film wilfully entertaining.
Lips and Soul is an extremely visual experience. Lun makes use of every trick up his sleeve, relying on slick editing, agile camera work, great use of color and meticulously styled and detailed settings to create a warm, cosy and pleasant atmosphere. It gives the film a very idyllic edge, yet it may be a little too fluffy and feminine for some. Still, I'm always glad to run into heavily stylized films like this.
Compared to the visuals, the soundtrack is pretty bland though. Some generic pop-influenced stuff to create a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, with basic genre music to fill in the gaps. It's never that bad that it become a real nuisance, but you'd expect a bit more from a film like this. With so much attention put into the visuals, the soundtrack is a pretty big dud and let's the film down, then again it may sit well with its target audience.
As for the acting, it's solid enough for a film of this calibre. The characters are all pretty big stereotypes, so the overacting comes with the territory. The cast is well aware of what is required of them while realizing they probably won't be winning any prizes with their performances. Chen Yina is the only one that rises up slightly above the rest.
A film like Lips and Soul doesn't hold too many surprises, from the moment the foundations are bared it's clear where this film is heading. A big fuzz at first, two very different women becoming friends, a small but serious-looking drama-bump to work up to the finale and of course a trademark happy ending. But as is the case with most (if not all) genre films, in the end it's the execution that matters and that's where this film shines bright.
Lips and Soul is pretty handicapped to reach a big audience. Poor availability and a complete lack of international buzz mean it will have to rely on the odd film festival to make a name for itself. History has taught us that this is pretty much impossible for modern Chinese films, so chances are this film will fade back into obscurity real fast. Should you happen upon it though, take a leap of faith and you'll find a pleasantly happy, up-beat and slick little feel-good film.