EXPECTATIONS: Sappy melodramatic trash that sucks up to the China market or an understated and touching drama featuring two standout performances from its leads.
REVIEW: Mainland China films have, quite frankly, been terrible lately. No point in sugarcoating it. No point in dulling the blade. I had to rip the bandage off as fast as I could. Either sucking up to the customs of the China market (i.e. the rampant product placement/whoring in Patrick Kong’s Mr and Mrs Single) to being severely compromised and cut to shreds (i.e. Alan Mak’s Lady Cop and Papa Crook) to overseas films getting in on the action (i.e. Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even films with content that should not be anywhere near children being compromised for children (i.e. the overstated and childish humour in Shin Tae-ra’s Bounty Hunters and many others), my mood on China films have soured immensely.
So when I heard about a film produced by acclaimed filmmaker Peter Chan Ho-sun and directed by rising director Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung and starring star actress Zhou Dongyu and rising talent Ma Sichun, I was both hesitant and hopeful. So did the film succeed even with my low expectations?
Based on the web-novel Qiyue and Ansheng by Li Jie, the film follows the lives of the title characters (played by Ma Sichun and Zhou Dongyu respectively) through their 20-year friendship from how they met during lessons of Chinese patriotism in middle school, finding young love, trudging through to university life drifting through the real world to the eventual outcome of the completion of the web-novel.
The synopsis I provided is brief, but I don’t want to provide any details about it because I am happy to report that this film is fantastic. Everyone from the cast and crew are on point with their roles and it might make it one of the best Chinese films of the year. Derek Tsang (son of Eric Tsang) always had talent and has shown it in many acclaimed films like co-writing Pang Ho-cheung films like Dream Home and Isabella, and has gone onto co-directing understated romances like Lover’s Discourse and Lacuna.
Now going into solo directing, Tsang has done a great job handling the film through its potential maudlin moments and finds actual integrity within the film’s scope as well as developing a sincere understanding of the characters. The beginning of the film reminded me of Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, with its use of text overlays being typed to present the story and it gives the film a sort of meta-vibe to what is actually being seen and what is being written and how it contrasts.
Tsang and his fellow screenwriters also take the melodrama genre tropes and thankfully turn it on its head. Character identities change at times, plot twists which change our view of the film almost completely, montages that strangely span longer than usual; all of these moments add a certain unpredictability to the proceedings that will definitely surprise some. The conflicts in the film involve little passive-aggressiveness; meaning that the characters say how they really feel about each other with sharp intent. Even the love triangle component of the film only ends up more of a catalyst of something problematic towards the women that had been seething beneath them long before the triangle even starts, which is quite refreshing to witness.
But none of it will work as effectively as it should without the two superlative performances of the lead actresses. Zhou Dongyu has come a very long way since her debut role in Under the Hawthorn Tree as the timid schoolgirl and has become a much more confident actress here in Soul Mate. It takes some getting used to seeing her play such a brash and upbeat person but she does it really well and it never overrides her inner emotions that she conveys.
Ma Sichun has been fine in good films like the Taiwanese drama The Left Ear and Ding Sheng’s true-story thriller Saving Mr. Wu, but she’s also been in stinkers like the execrable Time Raiders. But here, she gives a very understated performance that works really well alongside Dongyu’s spirited performance. Her reserved attitude pays off in the more climactic points of the film where her explosive anger brings her character to life and it is quite scary and thrilling to watch. And with director Tsang’s direction, the moments of conflict will keep the audience on edge at times. Toby Lee’s performance as the boyfriend in the love triangle is fine, considering what he has been given, but it looks amateurish when compared to the other two leads.
The film also has great production values, with fantastic cinematography from Jake Pollock and Jing Ping-yu and a stirring musical score (with soundtrack choices consisting of Faye Wong), although the score can be a bit intrusive at times, which can irk some. And even though the storytelling is refreshingly different, the outcomes of the story can also put some off due to how maudlin they can become, but the characters are so wonderfully portrayed and well-realized that it shouldn’t bother as much as it could have. There’s not even a noticeable China market flaw in the film either. Except maybe the milk product placement (although it was on a website the character was looking at) or the fact that the relationship between the two women was strictly platonic (I never read the source material, so I cannot be sure), but those can’t even qualify as nitpicks.
Overall, Soul Mate is a fantastic time-spanning drama and an endearing love-letter to friendship with two excellent performances from Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun; and assured direction from Derek Tsang that is sure to make the audience shed a few tears.
P.S- As of writing this review, Soul Mate is being nominated for 7 awards at the 2016 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, including Best Actress nominations for both Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun as well as Best Director for Derek Tsang. All are well-deserved.
Two fantastic lead performances
Assured direction from Derek Tsang
Fantastic trope-reversals in the genre
Surprising third-act and ending
Musical score can be a bit intrusive
Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Ma Sichun, Toby Lee
Director: Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung
Screenwriters: Lam Wing-sum, Wu Nan, Xu Yimeng, Li Yuan, based on the web-novel “Qiyue and Ansheng” by Li Jie