Along with the roses, chocolates and sweet words, Valentine weekend crowds in China this year got a bit of a surprise in movie theatres, as Li Shaohong's new film "Baober In Love" began its first-run showing across the country.
Thanks to media bombardment and intensive publicity hype, young movie-goers swarmed into cinemas expecting to see a typical "just-for-lovers" film filled with relaxing light-hearted romance, sparkling chemistry and silly-sweet comedy.
However, many viewers were bewildered by what they saw, and some were even angered.
One movie-goer even said she was "shocked by the film, which was marketed as a 'romantic picture with a touch of magic realism."'
"The eye-popping images, confusing storyline, eerie music, and bloody scenes...I am really angry about this film. It is not 'Baober in Love' but 'Kill Baober."'
But many others said it is a great film, with some calling it "a rarely seen home-grown blockbuster."
Statistics from distribution companies show, that "Baober" scooped up about 1.2 million yuan (US$145,000) in box office revenues in Beijing alone on Valentine's Day; and it raked in 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) nationwide in its first three days of showing.
When asked why she wanted to offer up such a Valentine's Day gift, the time-tested director, in her late 40s, replied bluntly: "Yes, love and being in love can be horrific, so why not have a horror-romance film? For many young lovers today, I think, love is too easy a word to say, and falling in love and falling out of it are not as simple as some would have us believe."
Reportedly shot for about 60 million yuan (US$7.26 million) (most of it for post production), all of it private money from the Chinese mainland, "Baober in Love" was produced by the Beijing Rosat Film & TV Production Co, Ltd.
Starring one of China's most popular actresses Zhou Xun, emerging pop film and TV star Chen Kun and model-turned-actor Huang Jue, the film took the production crew three years to make and boasts a strong technical crew including Silver Bear award winning cinematographer Zeng Nianping, who is Li's husband and long time collaborator, Oscar award winning art director Tim Yip, and world-renowned musicians Tetsuya Komuro, Franco Perry, Pierre Bonhomme and Damien Vergnaud.
Also on the team was veteran scriptwriter Zheng Zhong, who also worked with Li in her hugely successful costume TV drama series "Palace of Desire (Da Ming Gong Ci)" and the modern tragedy TV series "Orange Turns Reddish" (Ju Zi Hong Le).
"Why did I make this film? It's a chance meeting with the soul, a love feast. It's a film that reflects the pressures that Chinese people are faced with in these changing times," Li said.
The 21st century Chinese are infatuated with modernization, like a love-struck man craving for his lover, Li said.
Liu Zhi, the young man in this film, says, "I wish I could be struck by love on the street and knocked down."
"But if real love were to strike, would you recognize it? Would you be ready for it? Could you bear it? Would you be able to protect and preserve it?" Li asked.
In Li's eyes, Baober is a symbolic figure, a lost soul in a seemingly wildly delirious love affair. Even her birth is a joke. Her bitter love affair is a reminder of an ideal lost in an overly materialistic, commercialized, "modern" world.
"Every one of us may meet her some day on a street in some city. She may walk by us, but we won't see her. We won't stop to listen to her, ignoring her feelings. Our souls have become fragile," director Li said.
"We may all be drifting like Liu Zhi, thinking, 'Did I really meet her? A girl like that? Did I live this tumultuous love affair or was it a dream?' I'm willing to believe this bitterness is happiness."
In the film, the ancient city where Baober is born has in 20 years gone through a transformation that should have taken 200 years to achieve. The bulldozers reduce the tumultuous history of the capital to rubble, and a new city emerges while Baober is growing up."
This massive cultural earthquake shatters her spiritual world.
"As we passionately embrace this modern life, what has become of our souls? How do we bear the pressures that modernization has brought on our spirits? We rush forward into these modern times, with no time to reflect on the state of our minds. Like Baober, our spirits have been abandoned forever," the director claims.
A magic-realism flick
"While most male members of China's celebrated 'Fifth Generation' directors such as Zhang Yimou have indulged themselves in the production of films depicting bygone times with conventional film language, Li Shaohong, the only female, and often underrated, member of the 'Fifth Generation,' has been trying ceaselessly to find her new voice. And 'Baober in Love' is a result of her years-long search and an attempt to revitalize her artistic youth," said film critic Li Ershi.
The 100-minute-long film follows two interwoven storylines. One deals with the heroine Baober's search back into her personal history while the other involves her abrupt and doomed love affair with white collar worker Liu Zhi, who is bored with his empty material life.
The film presents a story full of seeming fragments, but each of them depicts some facet of the protagonists.
Audiences are forced to watch intensely and closely to piece together the subplot and make a logical picture out of the apparent mishmash.
Many scenes in the movie take the audiences on a roller-coaster ride of fantasy - like Baober flying alongside a jet or dishes landing on a dining table by themselves.
Some movie-goers may ask: are these things really happening, or do they only exist in Baober's mind?
Some others may remember some of the magic moments in the German film "The Tin Drum" or the French film "Amelie from Montartre." And a mysterious, monstrous black cat appears frequently in the film throwing the heroine into extreme panic.
Some critics say the cat can be read as Baober's nightmarish memories of her past life or her fear of the real world.
When we turn to characterization, "leading actors Zhou Xun and Huang Jue have tried their best to give life to their parts. And they manage it pretty well," said director Li.
Liu Zhi (played by Huang) is portrayed as a married urban youth who is bored with modern, materialistic life.
Liu's only relief is to confess his uneasiness to his video camera.
He dreams that one day, he will discover passionate love, and his dream comes true when Baober finds Liu's lost video tape.
Baober (played by Zhou) is depicted as a young and romantic girl, fearful of living in a rapidly changing society and tortured in her heart by the traumas of change, while yearning at the same time for passionate love.
Throughout the quickly paced movie, the subplot repeatedly shows up and each time carries us closer to the truth about what is going on in Baober's mind.
Careful film-watchers may spot a poster for Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" several times in the film.
Does this mean the subplot of the film is done in Rashomon style or it is just the director paying tribute to Kurosawa?
A poster of another film, "The Cell" by Tarsem Singh, also makes several appearance in the film. Both are visually stunning. Tim Yip has done a superb job with his vivid set and costume designs.
Cinematographer Zeng Nianping employs all kind of camera tricks to keep the film flowing smoothly from beginning to end.
However, audiences and critics are divided over this "magic realism" film.
"This is the coolest domestic film I've seen for years," said Wang Liang, a young moviegoer in Beijing. "It is well-crafted and breathtakingly beautiful."
It is reported that the director hired special visual effects makers, such as the French company Duboi.
"The big money that has been poured into this domestic film has really paid off," said film critic Su Hong.
"I very much like the film - its soul-piercing sound effects, the clean, textured, bright colouring of the images, the well-calculated, fluent editing, the meticulously controlled tension of the whole story, and the heart-wrenching sad tone of the film," she said.
But cinematographer Zeng revealed that, some of the "magic moments" that may look like special effects in sci-fi/kungfu film "Matrix," were actually done with much less money and with a single camera and aerial wires and circular tracks.
But some viewers say the film is successful only in its use of film techniques.
For one thing, "The film fails in its basic storytelling. The story does not develop naturally; rather, it serves as a springboard for the director's own ideology. That's why many young viewers cannot relate to the film and feel confused," said film critic Dai Yingying.
"It seems to me that, Li might be tired of telling stories in a conventional way and now is anxious to catch up with the latest trends," said film critic Wang Chen.
"Unfortunately, she has not really discovered her own style. Instead, she has been trapped in an excessive and unsuitable use of flashy film techniques," said Wang.
While some viewers say the protagonists act out a poetic, sad love story, some others argue that their acting "is not moving but dull and dumb."
Also, the application of Freudian psychoanalysis in the film is too simple and awkward while use of such images as a shining moon, sandy beaches, deserted houses and mushrooming cityscapes are "old-fashioned and only disclose the fact that the director's understanding of the inner world of today's youth is not deep enough and her way of portraying it is neither unique nor convincing," pointed out another critic Hong Cheng.
(China Daily February 24, 2004)