Saturday, October 24, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久) (World Premiere)

Worlds Apart

It is the 1980s, and China is on the cusp of opening up its economy to the world. Writer-director Li Fangfang's story which unfolds over a period of twenty years, enabled her to succinctly capture in the backdrop, a slice of life in its contemporary history, where its citizens stand at the doorway to globalization and opportunities such as the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, yet faced with issues such as decadent youths, and with a more open border, the SARS epidemic. It is this macroscopic backdrop that she unfolds a love story that calls to question the notion of everlasting love, whether such a fluffy idealism does exist.

And you can't help but to feel the tremendous pessimism that the characters have to experience, being quite pointedly told that there is no such thing as true white, that all white will eventually yellow. The lead female protagonist, Shen Xingchen (Liu dong), had to witness the breakup of her parents' relationship that came from the blind side and with tragic consequences, sowing the seeds of the non-permanence of Love, as she experienced the second of such breakups at her next foster home, her uncle's.

But one cannot stop this smart teenager from falling in love, and Xingchen's beau turns out to be Ming Yuan (Huang Ming), a boy she knew since childhood and has been taking care of her since. Both are scarred characters when it comes to love though, with Ming Yuan being unable to forgive his mother for finding another man when his dad had to be incarcerated for a smuggling racket gone wrong. With backgrounds as these, one wonders if they could pull through, since their expectations have been pretty much set, that nothing lasts forever, and have this innate fear of being abandoned by their loved ones, no thanks to being witnesses to the previous generations's non-permanence in relationships.

They understand what's the point of their love if not forever, and Li Fangfang's story throws at this pair of lovers, one of distance given Xingchen's enrolment to the prestigious Peking University and Ming Yuan's staying back at Hang Zhou, one of disease in the SARS epidemic keeping them further apart through quarantine, and the last one which I find the most problematic for the protagonists, one of a third party. I suppose it's always a dilemma when you are in such a scenario, whether to continue to pursue you one true love despite not being able to be physically close to each other, or would you make do (and I mean short-changing yourself here) with a nearer alternative who has demonstrated that she's probably insanely in love with yourself.

Besides romantic love, Li Fangfang's story which is excellent, also involves a more holistic look at Love from the parents angle (like the tough love on their children) and also has a very maternal look at the involvement of mothers. There are those who abandon their children in exchange for love, like Xingchen's, and those who despite being rejected and have left, never fail to return or find opportunities in trying to reconcile with their children. The role of women in China has also evolved, and through Li's multi-layered story, we see how it used to be of a mindset that one has to marry a rich man in order to secure a comfortable life for the future, versus Xingchen's modern woman approach of getting a good education, and then striking it out on her own. She doesn't even bat twice at resigning from a high flying job, because she is confident of her abilities in carving a niche for herself.

Technically, first time feature film cinematographer Lyle Vincent does a fantastic job in lensing this picture with quality, with a certain romanticism in the rhythm of the picture. And there's one scene which was fantastically crafted and edited involving a standoff and a pursuit (that culminates in the still you see above) that you just achingly feel for with your heart as you root for the lovers, if not for their responsibilities to others that come as a show-stopper. The leads chosen for the film were also competent in their delivery of their characters spanning the two decades with noticeable, subtle differences in performances as they mature in their roles, especially Liu Dong in making her Xingchen a rich little poor girl in the emotional aspect.

With an excellent soundtrack supported by songs from Taiwanese crooner Chyi Chin and the late Hong Kong mega-star Leslie Cheung, Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting is my last film screening for this year's festival, and what a joy it was to have ended with a film that came with plenty of bitterness before getting to be achingly sweet.

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