Soul Mate (2016)

This is another pick from my cinephile friend who definitely has a better eye than me on what is happening in Asian cinema. This one seems to have been a big success in the Chinese market and won some local awards but is probably not notable enough internationally to come to my attention. It feels very hip and contemporary to me being adapted from a written work that was originally published in Chinese magazines.

The adult Li Ansheng is accosted by an editor who wishes to know if she is the Ansheng mentioned in a novel that has appeared online. She denies it and starts reading the story but the flashbacks show that it is indeed her. The novel tells the story of the two girls Qiyue and Ansheng who met and became best friends when they were both 13-years old. Despite Ansheng being the stereotypical bad girl whose father had died years ago and whose mother is absent and Qiyue being the dutiful student with two loving parents, they are inseparable. Ansheng is a frequent guest at Qiyue’s home while they are young and Qiyue in turn hangs out at Ansheng’s cheap flat once she gets a job as a bartender and moves out. Their relationship is tested when Qiyue falls for a boy, Su Jiaming, at the university. Though the two become a couple and Ansheng is happy for them, it becomes evident that Jiaming and Ansheng are also attracted to each other. Ansheng therefore decides to move away, working in a variety of part-time gigs and travelling as she goes.

This is a competently made, easy to watch film that has no difficulty keeping your attention due to its habit of constantly throwing out dramatic twists and reversals. Both female leads are likable and the dynamics of their relationship make it easy to be swept along on the wave of emotion as they grow up and must learn to live apart from one another. Unfortunately this is also the kind of film that the more you think about it, the worst your opinion of it becomes. For example it predictably uses the frame story that this is told in the form of an online novel to make the narrative unreliable. Most of the scenes recounts the past as the author would it to be remembered, not as it really occurred. This is a fine as a literary flourish but the film relies on the device so heavily and in ways that aren’t always fair that it starts feeling like a cheap trick. Little games like misleading the audience over who exactly the author of the novel is to keep the surprises coming actually detract from the emotional depth. This is the difference between serious art films and commercial, mainstream fare. Commercial directors never understand that very often less is more.

Still this is a worthy effort and I think it perfectly captures the spirit of its source material as a story aimed primarily at young adult women in modern China. It’s rather cute how it dances around some issues, like whether or not Ansheng is actually romantically attracted to Qiyue in the beginning for example. The ending is poignant and fantastically well done. I was surprised to learn that its director is Derek Tsang, the son of Eric Tsang and himself an actor who has appeared in a large number of Hong Kong films of dubious quality. It’s effectively a Chinese teen movie but a well made one.

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