If You Are The One 2

January 9th, 2011

Yesterday’s adventures ended on the positive note of walking into the cinema 10 minutes before the next showing of Feng Xiaogang’s latest film 《非诚勿扰2》/If You Are The One 2 and finding plenty of tickets to spare.

Like the first film in the series (and the ending drops a strong hint that more films could follow), this one mixes Feng’s traditional light comedy with some decidedly darker themes. But this time there’s less comedy. A friend had told me that yes, it does involve death again (part 1 had Shu Qi’s Liang Xiaoxiao attempting suicide), and in the early stages of the film, Ge You’s character Qin Fen’s renting the (totally awesome!) house in Hainan for 20 years – enough, he says, to live out his twilight years – and the frequent mentions of old age and decrepitude and discussion of whether or not Qin Fen would live that long (the ‘that’ depending on the particular conversation) topped up with Qin Fen signing a fairly hefty life insurance policy with Xiaoxiao as the sole beneficiary had me suspecting Qin Fen was terminally ill and warming up to telling Xiaoxiao.

Alright, this is post going to have to involve spoilers, as it’s at least as much pondering of themes expounded as review, so if you don’t want spoilers, don’t click the “read more” thingee. So if you don’t want spoilers: It’s a good film, go watch it. For those who don’t mind spoilers, read on:

I was wrong, of course, which reminded me of the danger of going into a film with any kind of preconception. Indeed, Sun Honglei’s character Li Xiangshan reveals that he has terminal malignant melanoma. Xiangshan’s impending death strikes me as being the pivot the story swings around.

Having focussed on the shaky relationship and break-up between Qin Fen and Liang Xiaoxiao, the film quite abruptly changes focus. There are a couple of issues here, and I’m trying to tease them out.

One is Xiangshan’s gradual demise. On saying that it’s not death, but indignity he fears, Qin Fen promises him a dignified death. There are many ways one could interpret that, but it plays out thusly: Qin Fen organises a “living funeral”, a ceremony for friends and family to gather with Xiangshan and say their goodbyes. This strikes me as being not too bad an idea. But this is followed by a boat pulling out of harbour in Hainan and sailing off into the deep blue. Aboard are Qin Fen and Li Xiangshan. When they reach what one presumes is a distance both agree is appropriate, Qin Fen walks into the cabin, leaving Xiangshan alone on deck. After a moment, we hear a splash, but the camera stays on Qin Fen for some time, eventually panning to reveal Xiangshan’s wheelchair sitting empty on the deck. Xiangshan’s death is confirmed in the next scene it which it is strongly implied that his ashes have been put in a plant pot and a plant planted on top. This would seem, given the rather positive tone of this sequence of events, to be an argument for assisted suicide/euthanasia/similar sorts of “death with dignity”. And so I find myself asking: What is the Chinese law on assisted suicide? What is the Party’s position on such matters? How did this film get approval?!

It is Xiangshan who restores the relationship between Qin Fen and Liang Xiaoxiao through some words of wisdom delivered to the conflicted couple at his farewell ceremony. In the first half of the film which focusses on the unstable relationship between these two, it is clear that although Xiaoxiao is in a better psychological space than in the first film, she is still unable or unwilling to commit. And although Qin Fen seems much more certain of what he wants, he is also much less capable of expressing it. And then at the end we learn that Qin Fen and Liang Xiaoxiao marry in 2030 – at the end of the period Qin Fen had rented the fabulous house in Hainan, at the end of the period he had calculated would account for his twilight years. Am I reading far too much into this, or is he a sort of saviour figure who through his death heals the wounds that had kept these two apart?

And Reversals: The film opens with a divorce ceremony, in which the “anti-bride” arrives in a magnificent horse-drawn coach dressed in splendid princessly black, the “anti-bride” and “anti-groom” swear the undying end of their love on a stack of money, a ‘double happiness’ character is cut in two and burnt, and the “newly unweds” end the ceremony embracing like friends. And yet, the “anti-couple” have to be physically separated, reminded of their new status and put into separate cars at the end of the party. And, of course, Xiangshan’s “living funeral”.

The entire film takes place in a China prosperous far beyond what I ever see in this corner of Beijing, or even what I saw in the Shuangjing neighbourhood yesterday where we watched the film, although this wealth is a China that clearly does exist. But I couldn’t help but sense a scream of desperation running quietly through the background of every party scene, whether it was Xiaoxiao drinking herself into quite a horrific state after the beauty pageant in Hainan, or, my favourite: following Xiangshan’s telling Qin Fen of his terminal illness and their resulting drinking session, Qin Fen comatose on Xiaoxiao’s lap and Xiangshan sitting, propped up by Xiaoxiao on one side and Mangguo on the other, eyes staring vacantly, mouth hanging open, absolutely blotto with a half-empty glass of beer in one hand propped awkwardly on his lap, hanging over about to spill the rest of its contents, and the ladies with looks of mixed boredom, frustration, and tired acceptance on their faces as the party rages around them.

Indeed, with the minimalist fashion sense and beautiful strain of misanthropy and cynicism the beauty pageant in Hainan allows Qin Fen to display – especially with his correction of a typically vapid model’s response to a judge’s question on the meaning of “美” (beauty) to “美德” (virtue, moral excellence), the focus on the mostly broken relationships between the four main characters, and death, all that fabulous wealth seems almost superfluous. And yet none of the characters make even the slightest attempt at asceticism or withdrawal, except perhaps in Xiangshan’s death and burial – indeed, he is buried in a pot plant because he doesn’t like the overcrowding of the cemetery.

And so I left the cinema with a myriad questions racing round my head, which to me, is the sign of a good film. One I would definitely be interested in watching again. Several times. Now all I’m wondering is if this really does turn into a series, if Feng can keep up the goodness.

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