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SoulMate (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"The familiar done well can be an unexpected surprise."
5 stars

Describe the plot of "Soulmate" and it sounds like every third Chinese movie that has made its way across the Pacific over the last few years, a nostalgia-laden series of coming-of-age flashbacks that take an ironic route to a parallel narrative of the same characters as adults. This particular take on it doesn't exactly reinvent the concept, in that there aren't many pieces to it that haven't been used in similar films already, but it fits those pieces together exceptionally well, to the point where something that one might expect to be rote manages constant surprises.

It starts in the late 1990s, when 13-year-olds "July" Lin Qiuye and Li Ansen become fast, inseparable friends, with Ansen a frequent guest of July's welcoming family. They remain best friends as teenagers, although July (Sandra Ma Si-chun) is accepted into the area's top high school while the more rebellious Ansen (Zhou Dongyu) goes to a vocational institute. July soon falls for a boy, Su Jia-ming (Toby Lee Ching-ban); Ansen's immediate reaction is to see this person potentially coming between them as a threat, but when she goes to warn him not to hurt July, there's a palpable chemistry between the two - something that will make good fodder for the serial novel based on the girls' lives being released online in the present day.

That novel will run about seven or eight chapters, and the first big surprise is that the expected blow-up happens at the end of chapter two, during a farewell made on a train platform as Ansen goes to join her musician boyfriend in Beijing. It's a bit that everyone who has ever gone to a movie has seen, to the point where Ansen warns July not to run after the train, a comment that serves as something of a gauntlet that the writers throw down to director Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung and the cast. They earn the shots of July running after the train, though, and the scene climaxes on shots of the pair that emphasize the best and worst of each of them, how their friendship may be ripe for abuse, and may make the ways they hurt each other that much worse, but also suggests something that it may not be possible to sever.

That's what makes what comes next really interesting - this is where many films would give the pair entirely separate adventures, or jump forward to the present day to whet the audience's curiosity about how they got from here to there, but this one isn't having that. The glimpses of the 2010s are tantalizing, certainly, with an adorable little girl pushing her way to the foreground and a knack for opening scenes in such a way that the character involved could either be reading or writing the novel (but not in such a way that the ambiguity is first and foremost in the viewers' minds). Those glimpses are, however, brief, barely teases, because the filmmakers don't need the tension of something unknown hanging over a reunion to keep the focus on July and Ansen as a pair - even as the two are not physically together and are, in fact, not on very good terms, they are connected. The film makes their absence from each other's lives in the years following that separation palpable (the third chapter could work as a terrifically cut short film on its own), and the moments where their lives may intersect again if they so choose are invested with extra tension.

In many cases, building a story around this sort of intense friendship might not work, but the filmmakers have taken the idea of the two being connected and integrated it with the present-day framing in a way that both provides some of the film's surprises and makes it fascinating to examine closely. Consider, for instance, the early scenes in which Ansen has dinner at July's home, and July's mother favors her in a way that's more than a little unnerving. Since it's a fictionalized flashback, we know quite soon that it may be exaggerated or slanted, but if so, why does the author remember or present those encounters that way? It does fit into how the girls' mothers shape them, and by implying that Ansen may be the daughter July's mother wishes she had, it is a very early nudge toward how each will, at some point, take on attributes of the other and follow in her friend's footsteps. It's a striking progression that leads other films toward surrealism, but though this film will take advantage of a narrator's opportunity to misdirect as the flashbacks start to reach the present, it pulls July and Ansen together, and the way their story is told underscores their closeness as much as any impassioned speech might, stitching it into the very fabric of the film without metaphysics or madness.

It's a heck of a lot to put on the backs of the two actresses - and with respect to the good-looking Toby Lee Ching-ban, who does fine work making Jia-ming feel appealing to both the audience and two very different young women without complementing either so well as the other even after the point where he'd usually be disliked, it is a two-woman show. It's easy to gravitate toward Zhou Dongyu as Ansen at first, she gets the funny lines and energetic performance as the young rebel, and as the film goes on, she retains that esteem in part because she's able to maintain that appeal even as the character matures. It would be easy for her to become boring, or for the writers to make her a music critic or something else that signifies cool, but instead Zhou makes Ansen a bit surprised that she made it through her twenties, or keeps her body language loose even when doing something responsible - she is, no matter how she's changed, still identifiable as the girl from the opening chapter.

Sandra Ma Si-chun as July at first seems more muted, but she's just as intriguingly complex. July is the cheerful girl with potential who has been worn down on first glance, but it's worth noting that the exuberant teenager who first falls for Jia-ming has had reasons to be bitter for a while. Ma has to spend a lot of the movie shining in a somewhat muted way, until she gets the lines that might be the knife in the gut in another film, and while she delivers them with the anger you might expect, she also does so with pain, so that when we see her upbeat later, it doesn't seem strange or callous - it is, perhaps, the truest expression of who July is and can be, given a chance.

And we can be pretty sure it is, despite the fact that the film has embellishment baked into its premise. And that, I think, is what wins up making "Soulmate" truly exceptional - it applies the technique of a self-referential boutique movie to a genre popular enough to have become hackneyed, and the result is both smart and earnest enough to earn the emotional response another film may try to get through simple button-pushing. It was able to surprise me even when delivering exactly what this sort of movie is supposed to, and that doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.

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originally posted: 10/06/16 15:24:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Derek Tsang

Written by
  Wing-Sum Lam
  Nan Wu
  Yimeng Xu
  Li Yuan

  Dongyu Zhou
  Sichun Ma
  Chengshan Li

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