Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review - The Last Women Standing

December 14, 2017

The Last Women Standing – China, 2015

Before I get started, a confession: I watched the end credits of Luo Luo’s well-acted The Last Women Standing twice. Now normally when one does something as odd as that, it’s because there’s a particular actor whose name you want to know or because you missed the name of a friend of yours who worked on the film. Neither of those reasons applies in this case. No, I sat through rows of job titles and names in search of the company that had so badly butchered the subtitles on the Blu-ray disc that I had considered myself lucky to have found. Alas, it was nowhere to be seen. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to issue the following warning: Anyone who lacks a working understanding of Chinese should stay away from The Last Women Standing, for if your copy is so haphazardly translated as mine was, you’re likely to tear your hair out in frustration and curse the unnamed company that had the audacity to release such gobbledygook and call it English. For the record, it’s get in the car, not get on, moody not moldy, and marry someone not marry with someone.

Okay, rant’s over.

No, I lied. It’s not. See, here’s the thing. At this stage in their career, neither Shu Qi nor Eddie Peng should be making films like this one. Shu Qi has earned a place among the great Chinese actress of her generation; Eddie Peng, while not having the same pedigree in the film industry as Shu Qi, has quietly carved out a place for himself in Taiwanese cinema. In a perfect world, the two of them would have their choice of scripts and the time to sift through them and separate the great from the good and the good from the atrocious. That they both decided to make The Last Women Standing indicates that they either cannot pick the films they make or – and this is the even scarier alternative – they saw something in Luo’s script that I completely missed – which is entirely possible given the problem mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Last Women Standing casts Shu Qi as Sheng Ruxi, a successful thirty-year-old woman who seems to have a lot going for her – a promising career, a nice apartment, few financial worries. The only thing she doesn’t have is a husband, and it is this void that makes her mother (Pan Hong) hang her head in shame. In fact, in the opening scene, she badmouths her daughter for not being married while she is sitting next to her at a wedding, and it only gets worse from there. She seems to be under the impression that having a single daughter in her thirties is the greatest shame a mother can have. There is some truth to this story line. I have had students relate to me superstitions about women over thirty no longer being able to have healthy children and worries that it is harder for women that age to find love. However, the film makes this the central issue in almost all of their conversations, and after a few minutes, I was ready for the film to move on and establish other aspects of their relationship. Sadly, the film doesn’t acquiesce. It just hammers the point home over and over again, and then it takes it to an even greater extreme.

Eddie Peng, for his part, plays a young man named Ma Sai. Ma Sai is five years younger that Ruxi, less experienced in the world, and somewhat socially inept. He is a gentleman, however. In one brief scene in an elevator, we see him extend his arm to ensure that Ruxi is not knocked in the head by a ladder carried by a construction worker. The two of them work together. She is his superior, and he seems genuinely interested in learning to do his job well. What they do not appear to be doing is developing romantic feelings for each other, yet as has happened in so many movies before this one, all it takes is a night sleeping in the same hotel room together (separate beds of course) for a mutual interest to begin to develop. Yes, those heartfelt conversations about love, inexperience, and bloody noses really do the trick, and in movies it never fails to win a woman’s heart when a man does not hit on a woman he shouldn’t hit on in the first place. I wonder what makes screenwriters think that this is so rare that it immediately makes someone a possibility for love.

This being a romantic film, it has its fair share of idiot moments, the most egregious of which involve Ruxi. In one scene, she stands at a window watching fireworks go off and asking aloud, “True love. Where are you?” In another, she utters words related to spaceships and changing the channels up in the heavens in an attempt to explain why it is so hard to find Mr. Right. There’s even a scene in which Ruxi practices saying “I like you” out loud because, you know, the words are so hard for her to say that she needs to practice. And of course there is the requisite break-up-and-exit-down-a-long-empty-pier scene, for in movies a man must always stand and watch helplessly as the woman he loves walks out of his life. Apparently, his legs and his mouth go utterly numb.

I suspect that the film would have found a groove had it focused more exclusively on either the relationship between mother and daughter or that of Ruxi and Ma Sai. Instead, we get subplots galore, the result of which is a film that spreads itself in so many directions that it can’t do justice to any of its characters. A subplot involving Ruxi’s boss goes nowhere, and it is unclear what lesson Ruxi is supposed to learn from a friend who makes a rather large sacrifice for an ex-boyfriend. There’s also a doctor (Xing Jiadong) who falls for Ruxi because…well, I’m not actually sure why he does. She is not his type, never agrees with him on anything, and looks as if she’d rather be anywhere but sitting next to him. He can’t be that desperate, can he?

As the film reached its final act, I was sure it would resolve one of its two main plots, yet here I was again unpleasantly surprised. Instead of a final moment of reconciliation, we get a long heartfelt monologue from Ruxi’s father (Shih-Chieh King) because apparently fathers can always be counted on to tell their children not to live for someone else and not to settle for anything but the best. And so there the film is: at its end with two completely unresolved story lines, and an ending that left me scribbling only one word into my notepad: “WHAT?!” I couldn’t even bring myself to write a few comments about what I liked and disliked about it. Maybe I was still processing things. More likely I just didn’t care. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia)

2 stars

*The Last Women Standing is in Mandarin with truly horrible English subtitles.

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