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Beijing Love Story
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by Jay Seaver

"Five, in fact, and most of them pretty good."
3 stars

"Beijing Love Story" tells five overlapping stories of romance, and it could have gotten by with just three or four: Some feel like fragments just meant to tie others together, and some could use a little more fleshing out. The good news is that these segments are arranged so that the strongest are at the end, and there's something to that old saw that all's well that ends well.

We start out an impromptu bachelor party in a nightclub, where Chen Feng (Chen Sicheng) falls in love with Shen Yan (Tong Liya) at first sight, spotting the good girl out of a swarm of ladies on the make. His boss Wu Zheng (Wang Xue-bing) is habitually stepping out on his wife (Yu Nan), who decides to try it herself, eventually winding up in a hotel room with co-worker Liu Hui (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Afterward, he flies to Greece for a clandestine rendez-vous with Jia Ling (Carina Lau Ka-ling), although he does take a call from his daughter Xingyang (Nana Ou-young), telling her she can't go on a TV talent show. She does have at least one fan in Song-ge (Liu Hao-ran), although he may have to act quickly before she starts high school abroad. While that tale of first love is going on, there's also romance at the other end of life, with local busybody Mrs. Gao (Siqin Gaowa) setting Songge's grandfather "Old Wang" (Wang Qing-xiang) up with Xue Aijia (Elaine Kam), a 59-year-old beauty recently returned from America, though the real chemistry is obviously between Wang and Gao.

The film shares a name, writer/director/star Chen Sicheng, and co-star Tong Liya with a recent hit Chinese television series, although Chen and Tong played different characters in the series; it's effectively an entirely new thing. Considering that they've worked together before and recently married in real life, it's not particularly surprising that their segment can practically coast on their charm and chemistry, with a plot about Yan's wealthy ex-boyfriend trying to lure her back not particularly leading anywhere. The same goes for the segment it leads into, which lets Yu Nan be impressively heartbroken, but perhaps the most interesting thing it does is invert the feel of the nightlife by showing it through different eyes; what seemed lusty and exciting for Feng and Zheng seems kind of scuzzy and faded for Zhang Lei. It's a nice juxtaposition with some good acting, but even together, they're not a complete story.

It's a bit of a jump to get from there to Greece, but then the stories start getting good enough to match the cast. Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau Ka-ling have a sly, seasoned chemistry, able to manage sliding back and forth between comedy and contention without ever missing a step. Nana Ou-yang and Liu Hao-ran are all kinds of adorable as the kids; they project a really delightful innocence without seeming oversimplified or foolish at any time. But it's the last segment that truly solidifies the movie as worthwhile; Chen Sicheng doesn't come up with a particularly new story, but he gives his senior cast members the space to play the story out without it ever getting overly melodramatic. It's a simple story, but it's well-told.

With Beijing right in the title, it's to be expected that the setting plays a major role, but what's surprising is how the film goes to fairly impressive lengths to not be tied down to a single impression of the city: It starts with the young, slick, prosperous version of the city that China (and its film industry) has spent the recent years presenting to the world, but doesn't hesitate to show that life's dark side. By the time it's reached the end, though, it's in a much more somber place, both physically and emotionally. The environment goes from skyscrapers to traditional Chinese architecture, with the everyday spaces people live in grounding both. I like the way that Chen and cinematographer Song Xiao-fei (and the rest of the crew) own the city's smog to a certain extent, with the haze taking on meaning as the film goes on - albeit a different meaning for each character - and the sharp, bright clarity of the scenes in Greece gives it a sort of fantasy sheen.

It's a fairly accomplished debut feature for Chen Sicheng, although doing this sort of anthology right out of the gate does sort of give him five chances to fail, and he does go for a few stylistic flourishes that are occasionally downright puzzling (lots of "what?" during a certain scene of Song-ge's that must have been relatively expensive for not a whole lot of benefit). Still, he does mostly manage to tell five stories that are compact without seeming cramped, getting laughs when he wants them (including a hilarious circle-closing moment) and something else when he wants something else. Although not every segment works completely, the average score is pretty high.

"Beijing Love Story" comes together well enough in its later segments that it's fairly easy to forgive any early stumblings. In fact, it's not exaggerating by much to say it has become a different movie by that point, and smoothly getting to that solid ending after a shaky start is what you want a movie like this to do.

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originally posted: 02/21/14 16:21:39
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