Monday, February 21, 2011

Review – When Love Comes

February 21, 2011

When Love Comes – Taiwan, 2010

Tso-chi Chang’s emotionally wrenching When Love Comes has two scenes in it in which women go into labor. Neither scene resembles the cheerfully frantic scenes of Hollywood romances, scenes in which an overly excited yet nervous husband often comically runs around like a chicken with its head cut off. In When Love Comes, the women who go into labor are caught completely off guard. Judging from their behavior, I’d say that neither of them has ever taken a lamas class. Both scenes take place at the same location, their family restaurant, and when the women first become aware of the impending birth, they try their hardest to walk away from the customers that moments earlier they had been either serving or talking to. Neither makes it. What follows is rather painful to watch, yet what’s striking about each scene is the apparent implication that love, here the love that hopefully develops between a mother and her child the moment a child is born, and agony are inextricably linked. In essence, you can have one without the other.

Much of what takes place in When Love Comes is the result of a night that the audience doesn’t see and that I will endeavor not to reveal. On that night, three people made what must have been a very difficult decision. The most visible evidence of that decision is the son born in the film’s opening scene. It is the family’s first son, an occasion for celebration for most Asian families, and yet immediately something is off. There does not seem to have been any preparation for this moment. In addition, the newborn’s father, often referred to as “Dark Face” throughout the film, does not immediately rush to the hospital, and later he spends his evenings drinking instead of being with his new child. In addition, the woman’s sixteen-year-old daughter Laichun initially decides not to even visit her mother in the hospital, and when she finally does, her mother Zihua chastises her incessantly for wearing clothing that is too revealing. She’ll later describe her daughter’s birth as “her misfortune.” She eventually has to bring her child home in a taxi because Dark Face does not pick her up.

There are four other members of this family. The matriarch of the family is Xue-feng. She runs the family restaurant and takes care of her elderly father, a man who seems to have reached a point in life that allows him to approach things calmly and wisely. Therefore, no one really listens to him. There’s also Laichun’s sister Lai-ri, a quiet girl who carries a pregnancy test in her purse because, as she puts it, that’s what all of her friends are doing. Last, there’s Dark Face’s mentally challenged brother Jie (well-played by Mengjie Gao), who came to live with them after his mother died. His presence only serves to further remind his brother of his personal failings.

Much of the drama in the film has to do with the impact that Jie’s presence has on the family, Laichun’s accidental pregnancy, and the feelings that surface after the arrival of the new baby. It’s a tough film to watch, and I suspect it will be even more difficult for people unfamiliar with Taiwan. Towards the beginning of the film, Laichun pouts when no one in her family remembers that it’s her birthday. This is not all that uncommon in Taiwan. However, birthdays are becoming increasingly important for young people today, and the fact that her parents don’t remember it only serves to further distance her from them. Their reaction to her pregnancy does nothing to help bring them closer together either. In another scene, Jie loses control during an argument with his brother, and the method the family uses to get him to calm down could easily be described as abusive, despite its surprising effectiveness. I remember saying to a class of mine that a parent should never say they are going to leave a child in a store if they don’t stop crying because a parent cannot carry out that threat. My students “assured” me that some parents are actually more than willing to do that and even consider it good parenting. In this context, it is entirely believable that some people would adopt a strategy such as the one used in the film.

As serious as When Love Comes is, there are quiet, emotional moments during which characters reveal family secrets that explain so much about these characters. The most fascinating one of these is spoken by Xue-feng, and in it, we learn that the man she married was not the man she had wanted to spend her life with. Her family’s wishes came before her own, and I wondered whether she truly loved the man she had spent over sixteen years with. Another of these emotional moments answers that question in a rather powerful way. There’s also a conversation towards the end of the film between Xue-feng and Zihua that is as poignant as it is revelatory, and what would ordinarily have shocked us becomes something we empathize greatly with. And then there are the scenes with Jie and Laichun, at first filled with confrontation and later filled with compassion and hope. It’s as if Laichun is learning how to be a parent through her experiences with Jie.

When Love Comes has an absolutely stellar cast, and no review would be complete without mentioning two performances in particular. The first is Xue-feng Lu in the role of Xue-feng. The role calls for Xue-feng to display a range of complex emotions, all the while knowing that she is mostly responsible for the situation the family finds itself in. The other standout performance is that of Yije Li as Laichun. To see her performance is to see the rise of an unbelievably skilled thespian, and if there is any justice in the world, she’ll now have scripts delivered to her daily. Also worth mentioning is Yu-shun Lin in the difficult role of Dark Face, a man coming apart both emotionally and physically, as years of drinking finally catch up with him.

When Love Comes is the second Taiwanese film I’ve seen to confront modern-day problems head on, the first being Edward Yang’s YiYi. When Love Comes shows us the disconnect that sometimes exists between generations these days. While the adults focus on finances, the children focus on personal connections. While the children want to be treated as adults, their parents continue to micromanage their lives, and when their children make mistakes, their parents often make loud comments about what their friends and neighbors will think when they find out, as if their children were nothing but an embarrassment. This is like not true, yet it is how many teenagers interpret such reactions. In addition, their children think they are mature enough to make adult decisions, yet many of them continue to make the kinds of mistakes that some motherly advice might have helped them avoid. Notice I said might. After all, there’s a reason that the scene at the beginning of the film is so similar to the one towards the end. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Taiwan)

4 stars

*When Love Comes is in Mandarin and Min Nan.

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