Basing a film on a song (in this case, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) is nothing new. Well-known songs can give a production recognition value even before the first frame is seen. Also like famous compositions, various covers will pop up everywhere, trying to recreate the magic of the original.
First-time filmmaker François Chang has taken the notion of “I want your love and I want your revenge / I want your love I don’t wanna be your friend” and crafted a narrative that zeroes in on seven lonely individuals who have the potential for living happily ever after thanks largely to love at first sight.
French (language and culture) features prominently. With homage to Eric Rohmer’s Six Contes Moraux, the unmistakable stylings of Edith Piaf and employing the Beijing Alliance Française as a location (not very far from Destination—the Chinese capital’s trendiest gay bar plays a brief, if pivotal part in the relationship buffet), the stage is set for a heady mix of Asian and European culture and mores. The French singers are beautifully contrasted with Chinese opera where the timbre, tone and texture are worlds apart, but their messages are similar (“But why have I not met the one I am looking for?”).
There’s even an air of pointillism (the early-scene sun umbrella immediately evokes a resonance with Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) and a frequently minimalist, at times saccharine string-rich score that moves along easily with the principals as their tales are intriguingly juxtaposed one upon the others.
Xiaoya (newcomer Nranus Chen already shows an impressive range of emotion), a single mother with a pictured yet never seen son, Yu, is the model of decorum even as she tries to make sense of her life after a failed relationship. Living abroad most of the time, her best friend’s cousin Cong (Chang’s camera has as much success capturing Jason Lau’s sultry good looks—somewhat akin to Joe Odagiri, cross-reference below—as viewers will savour them) is smitten with Xiaoya and begins winning his way into her heart and otherwise empty bed with a daily bouquet of fresh flowers that soon works its way to loving red.
Jasmine (Chan Chan) is late for her very first French class only to suddenly, unquenchably light the fire in new classmate François (Chang doing commendable double duty playing the unrelenting suitor—saying “désolé” with hundreds of Post-it® Notes having missed his hopeful’s own turn as a chanteuse). Their instructor, Marie Robin, launches a discussion about the meaning of love (war, colour, eyes?), and readily establishes the parameters for the dramas that are about to unfold. Language classmate Loulou (Macha Hsiao) takes Jasmine under her wing and is welcomed most affectionately …).
Bass (a promising début for Will Bay) has been waiting two years to reconnect with his instant flame, Cheng (done up with an engaging sense of passion—even as he constantly strays—by Hayden Leung). Once together again, it’s just a matter of hours before living arrangements are altered (yet planning a revenge sleepover ought to have alerted Bass that his longtime lust would only be satiated at a price).
At its best—especially in the first half—the film has a marvellous sense of flow, romance and possibility: something special is on the screen. Unfortunately, Chang’s storyline has to rely on tired turning points (Bass intercepts a cellphone call that puts him on a Somerset Maugham—Of Human Bondage—path of self-inflicted misery that just doesn’t wash in “If I don’t have my phone with me, I am not a whole person” culture of 2011).
When the sex does come (extra hot, lovingly demure or unwanted depending on circumstance) editor Chang scores a physical and emotional knockout without ever losing the overarching aura of tasteful and honest physical expressions of passion.
As is often the case with so many strands weaving their way into a cohesive whole, the final measures and coda can’t quite find the magic with the tantalizing notion that everyone’s been duped (on both sides of the footlights). Once Chang masters the adieu, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in cinéma profond. JWR