There's something about dance flicks that never seem to go out of fashion, and can easily find themselves in the cinemas of various countries. Just ballroom dancing alone I can rattle offhand (good or bad) films from Japan, Korea, and Singapore even, with our Dance of the Dragon. Duel for Love is China's addition to the ballroom dance genre, and if you think you've seen one too many that always deal with romantic love between the dancers, jealous rivalry and such, well this film while it has those elements, gets delivered quite differently.
It's based itself on the adage that in a long river, it is the waters at the back that pushes the waves in front, meaning it takes those with experience to make way and to support the younger generation forward in their pursuits. That is exactly what this film is all about, where one has to realize that we cannot always go on at the highest level all the time, and there will be a juncture where we need to step aside, and help others fulfill their dreams and potential.
Directed by Zhang Ting, Duel For Love is quite unlike what its title suggested, which in the very first glance one might think of position usurp and a very ugly, formulaic romantic tale built in. Even the first act of the film may seem to suggest that, but thankfully its approach left quite the bit of much needed fresh air to a rather tired genre formula. We start off with a showpiece demonstrating what actors Zhong Han Liang and Ai Dai can do as world ballroom dancing champs Chu Shinan and Li Li, and as sensual as you can get, the two show some very differently body language when out of the dance floor, a reflection of their current frosty, testy relations. As far as ballroom dancing lore goes, this spells disaster which will impact their performance soon enough.
A needless car crash introduces them to Xiao Man (Sun Tian Li Zi), a village girl who has left for the city in search of a proper dance school to pursuit her interests in the area, and as Fate would have it, put her in the way of Shinan who is in need of a partner since Li Li has to battle, quite reluctantly, her alcohol addiction by checking into AA. An eager beaver, Xiao Man knows she has probably the best dance coach and showcases her dedication through a rudimentary training montage, but it is Shinan's temperament in coaching that she has to endure, given his volatile nature when he's zoned into the sport.
The usual formula would dictate that not only Xiao Man will usurp Li Li's position has Shinan's dance partner, but as his romantic interest as well, and thankfully this is not the story of the film. It instead focuses on the individual characters and the personal demons they have to battle. For Shinan, his only love here is the love for the sport, which led to his self-centered behaviour who only cares for his personal glory, trophies, appearances and reputation as a champion, even at the expense of others. His pursuit of success and excellence comes with little emotional investment in others, and in short, a jerk. His long suffering partner Li Li had turned to the bottle in part due to this labourious, torturous training regime she has to go through as his partner, staying in it because of her unrequited love for a man who cannot see beyond his achievements.
And Xiao Man's the glue that instead of coming in between the couple, becomes the catalyst to wake everyone up through her curiosity. Her role is strictly that of a protege waiting for her break, and I thought all the trio had danced rather convincingly (OK, so I'm no dancer nor coach) to make the film believable, where the filmmakers can afford longer takes and wider shots, compared to our local effort which had to cheat using quick edits. If there was any gripe, then it's the frequently used fade-to-blacks for scene transitions, which does get to you after a while, and also Sun Tian Li Zi's solo dance piece in a club (complete with gaudy, silvery costume) that seemed a little out of place for the feel of the film.
Even without a big-bang finale that is almost a requisite crescendo for such films, Duel for Love does join the genre as a dance film with something different on offer.