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Left Ear, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not the Chinese 'Brick' it starts out to be, but not bad."
3 stars

Even after reading a description of this movie that I thought might give too much away and seeing the dedication at the start, I spent a good chunk of "The Left Ear" thinking it was going to be something else, something far more pulpy or at least soapy than the earnest narration about how Li Er is deaf in that ear but that since it is closest to the heart, tradition holds that she will know if someone whispers "I love you" in that ear. It eventually settles into the youthful drama it was meant to be, and I suppose it works well enough that way, though I'd kind of like to see director Alec Su make the oddball movie he seems to start with.

As this one starts, it's 2005 and Li Er (Chen Duling) is 17, a hundred days away from her college exams in coastal Chinese city Tianyi. She's got a crush on classmate Xu Yi (Yang Yang) and bikes to school every day with doting cousin You Ta (Hu Xia). On the other side of town, dropout Li Bala (Ma Sichun) is about the same age and singing in seedy bars. She's got a thing for Xu Yi's basketball teammate Zhang Yang (Ou Hao), despite kind of being with gangster Hei Ren (Duan Bowen) and Zhang already having a rich girlfriend in Jiang Jiao (Guan Xiaotong), but Zhang says he'll be with her if she ruins Xu Yi first. And yet, unexpectedly, good girl Li Er and bad girl Li Bala become close friends.

Femmes fatales, gangsters, and revenge plots - there are moments when the first chunk of The Left Ear almost feels like a Chinese version of Rian Johnson's high-school noir Brick. The filmmakers don't commit to that path the way Johnson's does, but even when it becomes more like a year of a high-school soap compressed into two hours, it's an enjoyably salacious alternative to the more nostalgic high school movies that seem to be more common than present-day ones in the Chinas (at least in terms of what crosses the Pacific). Even when the film does become that later on, it drains a bit of the maudlin sentimentality off.

The odd thing about starting the movie off that way is that it means there is not a whole lot of room for the narrator; Li Er is a sweet girl and doesn't fit well into the tale of revenge and seduction that initially plays out. In that way, the movie becoming more conventional actually lets it use one of its best resources - Chen Duling may not play the most initially exciting character, but she essays a sort of stubbornly innocent world view that could seem naive or priggish but instead becomes quite charming. Chen makes a potentially flat character a lot of fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is a bit too big, even when an early turning point leaves a hole that not only means screen time doesn't have to be divided so much but gives the characters from different parts of the story some common ground. Yang Yang, Hu Xia, and Guan Xiaotong all play the sort of characters that, with a little more individual personality, could have made the film more interesting than one expects, but which instead get subplots that seem a bit like filler. Ou Hao, at least, does a nice job of building Zhang Yang up in a way that he can fit into the film's multiple phases in a way that actually feels like progression. Ma Sichun can seem kind of rough as an actress at times, but she's good and charismatic enough to make both Bala's larger-than-life and down-to-earth scenes work.

As near as I can tell, this is Alec Su's directorial debut - he's been an actor and singer for twenty-odd years - and he does a better job than one might expect wrangling the various contradictory tones. The melodrama is a bit thick at times, and there are spots where the film could use a little more polish, but it's probably the best way to handle what Rao Xueman gives him for a script based upon her own novel. Maybe it would have been a little less wobbly with a more seasoned writer or director (Rao is a prolific young-adult author, but this is her first screenplay).

Still, in not always knowing what sort of movie it wants to be, "The Left Ear" winds up being a bit better than expected. It doesn't stick with that off-beat, kind of trashy style too long, but a little bit of that in the middle of looking back at the life lessons learned between the end of high school and the start of college goes a long way in making the latter more fun.

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originally posted: 05/17/15 15:17:20
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Directed by
  Alec Su

Written by
  Xueman Rao

  Duling Chen
  Hao Ou
  Yang Yang
  Sichun Ma

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