Friday, February 17, 2012

Love (爱 / Ai)

An Absolute Charm

This year's Valentine's Day has come and gone, but arguably the best film for the season was saved for last, making its premiere this week. Taiwanese films are on a roll these days, with greater awareness brought about by the success of You Are The Apple of My Eye that made more people sit up and take notice of its stories, but I thought that the filmmakers had upped their game with superb storytelling and technique these days that it's just hard to ignore film offerings that come our way.

Love belongs to that genre of romantic films that boasts of a stellar ensemble cast playing characters within their respective six (and likely a less) degrees of separation, with their carefully crafted ties all laid out to complicate matters yet provide interesting, individual perspectives. Doze Niu helms this effort and also plays one of the roles as a rich entertainment industry tycoon Lu whose relationship with Zoe Fang (Shu Qi) is heading for the rocks. Zoe lives a life leaching off rich men, but deep down desires that degree of independence if only she can find the courage to break out of her comfort zone. From these two characters the branches extend to Lu's daughter Ni (Amber Kuo) who finds out that her filmmaker wannabe boyfriend Kai (Eddie Pang) had impregnated her best friend Yijia (Ivy Chen), the latter whose brother Kuan (Ethan Juan) turns out to be sharing an innocent relationship with Zoe at the rooftop of his home where she can hang out and just be herself. Zoe's ex Mark (Mark Chao) who is also Lu's friend (yeah, the character of Zoe flits from one rich man to another) travels to find his roots in Beijing and sets off on the wrong foot with real estate agent Xiao Ye (Vicky Zhao), a single mom who links through an implied dotted line back to one of the mentioned characters,

That about lays out the skeleton of relationships that this story by Doze, Tseng Li-Ting and Qian Wang develops upon, covering a whole wide spectrum on its titular emotion put under the spotlight, but not without the usual ups and downs, of hurt and of satisfaction, of regrets and that whimsical feeling that everything will turn out just fine despite the odds. I suppose love, or being in love, with force some of the most positive feelings out of you, while those that fall out of favour, will naturally find life quite miserable, with the constant probing, lying, and the doing of dispicable things amongst the desperate. And it's not just romantic love on display here, but that between siblings, best friends, parent and child too, providing that holistic view of the emotion that at times get quite incomprehensible to grasp, with some relationships being complicated, or even so simple that you'd start to worry.

Technically, this film grabs you by the collar from the get go, with a remarkable and unforgettable continuous tracking shot for the entire opening credits where we get introduced to key characters as they get choreographed to get into one another's way. It's a logistical nightmare (although I do suspect that some editing cheats were being employed), but it came off its blocks really nicely to introduce us to its bevy of stars and teasing their respective fans of their idol's guaranteed appearance in the film. Director of Photography Lee Ping Bin is also one of the best in the business, capturing the stars at their best angles and making them look absolutely gorgeous.

But that aside, Love has its sprawling story to thank, being simple enough to follow despite its concurrent multiple narratives that weave in and out of each other, keeping pace and tempo at pitch perfectness and gelling everything into one complete, satisfying package. There's plenty of drama and comedy that spring up at unsuspecting moments to keep things light and moving along, and is done so naturally that they don't seem too forced, nor trying too hard, nor artificial. And the cast of veterans such as Doze himself, Vicky Zhao and Shu Qi were balanced by the relative newcomers who hold their own against their more experienced co-stars, never making some of their pair ups a sore discussion point, despite their obvious age gaps.

There were plenty of lovely moments in the film that regularly punctuates the narrative throughout, and some of my personal favourites involve the Ethan Juan-Shu Qi story arc, and that caustic interaction that's all too familiar amongst parents who bicker on the outside, but deep down inside containing some steadfast emotions built upon bedrock. One of the best romantic films to be released in recent years, Love truly epitomizes its namesake containing stories that are strong in its individual arcs as well as the sum of its parts, blessed with a powerhouse of who's who from both sides of the Chinese straits in delivering credible performances all round, bringing to life some of the best written characters for what's usually a fluffy film meant for a typical date outing. This film shows how quality can be injected into usually throwaway romantic comedies, but Love is definitely for keeps, and is highly recommended. Don't miss it!

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