Friday, December 4, 2009

Review – The Equation of Love and Death

December 4, 2009

The Equation of Love and Death – (Hong Kong/China, 2008)

Cao Baoping’s excellent debut film The Equation of Love and Death begins like an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. There are even numbers that float around as the opening credits are rolling. As the film beings, a young female cab driver is reciting what appear to be random numbers, as if somehow they are a code that she must decipher. Intermittently she turns to the passengers behind her, whoever they may be, and shows them a picture of her ex-boyfriend, who she says vanished four years earlier. To each of them, she asks a simple question, “Have you seen him?” No one has. To help jog their memory, she also provides them with a magazine to peruse at the own leisure, one in which multiple pictures of her lost love have been paper clipped over fashion models and advertisements. On a particular day, she picks up two passengers who seem confused and uncomfortable by her talk of numbers and a missing young man. I can’t say I blame them, and yet there’s something peculiar about these two men, something a little out of the ordinary. In another car, a different woman speaks of having had her brained scanned for the part of it that was addicted to drugs and then having that part removed, thus ending her drug addiction. Beside her in the driver’s seat is a young man, probably in his early twenties, talking vaguely about their destinations and what they will do when they get there. Moments later, after an odd, perhaps fated series of action involving a lack of small bills, a bout of impatience, a minor theft, and a poetry-spouting man’s act of suicide, the two passengers find themselves staring down at the young man from above an underpass. The magazine is now in the man’s hands, and as he frantically flips through it, he looks as if he has seen a ghost.

The young cab driver’s name is Li Mi, and we later learn that she and her ex-boyfriend both failed the entrance exam for university, results that no doubt rocked them to the core. Here in Taiwan, students study for years both during the day and after school at extended educational facilities known as bushiban (cram schools). A good part of a student’s day is devoted to memorizing the information he will need to pass this kind of examination, and failure can be devastating, leaving one with a great deal of diminished hopes and fading dreams. Some rise above these feelings and pursue their dreams in another way; others never recover from them. I imagine teenagers have similar reactions wherever such importance is placed on an examination. For Li Mi and her boyfriend Fang Wen, it’s must have forced them to reevaluate all of the plans they had made for themselves. Whatever new plans they hatched similarly did not come to fruition, and what was meant to be a short-term separation developed into something permanent. Fang Wen’s letters, once filled with such hope and emotion, one day simply stopped coming.

One of the many strengths of The Equation of Love and Death is Xun Zhou’s performance as Li Mi. In the opening scene, Li Mi appears quirky, almost comical as she rattles off numbers and stuffs Fang Wen’s pictures in her passengers’ faces, all the while sitting in the driver’s seat with a lit cigarette dangling from her lips. It’s an act though, perhaps one of those performances that some people put on to get through the day and ward off madness and despair. As Li Mi, Xun Zhou is called upon to produce an array of emotions, from the comical side that Li Mi shows to her customers, to the sentimental side we see when she is talking to a passenger named Shiu Tian about the girl that he loves and is trying desperately to find, to the side of her that can go in a split second from being terrified for her very life to being willing to aggressively fight over the possessions that she holds so dear to her. Some actresses struggle when they are called upon to be calm one minute and screaming the next. Xun Zhou makes it look entirely too easy.

The other characters in the film are equally interesting, for each of them is responding to a world in which money has entirely too much importance and for which people are often asked or expected to do some of the ugliest deeds. We hear of a woman being told by her mother of all people to become a prostitute to the men working in the nearby mines. Another character, Hua Gui, seems to need money desperately to be able to wipe his slate clean and begin anew. Shiu Tian simply needs money to keep searching for his beloved Xiao Xiang. We’re tempted therefore to sympathize with Shiu Tian and Hua Gui, yet this becomes very difficult after we see what they put Li Mi through.

Eventually Li Mi stands in front of the man she feels certain is Fang Wen, and yet he looks at her and insists that his name is Ma Bing and that she is mistaken. She’s not convinced, though, and neither is a somewhat rough-speaking but soft-hearted detective (well played by Zhang Hanyu). I guess that’s not surprising in a film like this, for someone has to be willing to investigate this man who looks so much like the man in the pictures in Li Mi’s cab. However, the film’s handling of this is also fairly unique.

In a perfect world, a film as fascinating as The Equation of Love and Death would be screening in theaters all over the world. Sadly, this is not the case with this film. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film has only been shown in China and Spain (it has also been screened in Taiwan), and it has not opened anywhere since March 2009. A film as good as this one deserves a much better fate. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 stars

*The Equation of Love and Death is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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