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Love for Life: Film Review

The Bottom Line

An incurably sentimental and didactic take on China’s AIDS patients.

Director

Gu Changwei

Screenwriters

Yan Laoshi, Yang Weiwei, Gu Changwei

Cast

Zhang Ziyi, Aaron Kwok

Thrust into calamitous dramatic contrivances in the first mainland fiction film to handle the scorching issue of AIDS in China, screen goddess Zhang Ziyi and Hong Kong pop king Aaron Kwok resort to some of the most clamorous, histrionic acting in their careers.

HONG KONG — There’s not enough heart or conscience poured into Gu Changwei’s Love for Lifeto make it the high profile film it should be, even though it is the first mainland fiction film to handle the scorching issue of AIDS in China, and stars screen goddess Zhang Ziyi and Hong Kong pop king Aaron Kwok. Despite the sterling lineup of production talent and participation of HIV-positive non-pros in supporting roles, the leads, tone and thematic treatment are as mismatched as a blood transfusion gone wrong. Thrust into calamitous dramatic contrivances that lurch from melodrama and earthy peasant humor to soft-core sex and half-hearted magic realism, Zhang and Kwok resort to some of the most clamorous, histrionic acting in their careers.

The prestigious cast still holds strong appeal within Chinese-language markets. However, the premier festivals that embraced Gu’s sublimeFlaubertian tragedies (Peacock, And the Spring Comes) will be less eager to bid for this unsubtle lehrstuck, which has government-endorsed agenda written all over it. To get the real scoop on how people live with HIV in China, look no further than Together, the documentary shot as a companion piece to the film by Zhao Liang.

Selectively based on fact, Love for Life is set in a remote village in the 1990s and narrated by Zhao Xiaoxin, a 12-year-old victim who is already dead when the story begins. Since media coverage on AIDS and HIV in China has long been heavily shrouded, most viewers want to know how it spread and how the public is affected or responding to it. Ironically, this most pressing and newsworthy aspect is dealt with evasively in a rushed and densely edited prologue which obliquely refers to a black market blood trade run by Xiaoxin’s dad Qiquan. One infers that the unhygienic transfusions caused outbreaks that turned their home town into a ghost town.

To make amends for his son Qiquan’s sins, the elderly Zhao (Pu Cunxi) takes over the deserted school where he was once janitor, and transforms it into a home for HIV-positive villagers, second son Deyi (Kwok) included. The drama arising from fear, self-preservation and personality clashes among these social outcasts are over-heated and performed with grating shrillness.

Without one single likeable character to elicit sympathy, the extent of discrimination they suffer isn’t adequately conveyed until the introduction of Qinqin (Zhang) who seeks refuge after being cast out by her family. Deyi and Qinqin furtively seek solace in a physical relationship, but when her boorish husband learns of her “infidelity” his reaction is monstrous.

This becomes the catalyst for the couple to shack up in a stone cottage and lose themselves in carnal fulfillment. As a manifestation of their lust for life in the face of death, the affair’s torrid enough. However this development digresses from the central theme as the camera angles get more uncomfortably salacious, notably a scene when she uses her drenched naked body to lower his fever. (You’d think a wet towel would have done the trick.) The moral ground shifts further away from battling prejudice against HIV to overcoming the social stigma of extra-marital love when the narrative becomes caught up with Qinqin’s obsession with getting a marriage license.

At no point does Kwok look the part as an uncouth hick. He sticks out in the crowd scenes as his demeanor and body language betrays his hip urban background. Zhang has no problem convincing and moving the audience in her initial appearance as a simple country woman at the mercy of feudalistic values, but her feistiness hardens into nagging hysteria. Other supporting roles are loud but one-dimensional. When Qiquan, the culprit of the epidemic, is demonized as such a remorseless, avaricious ogre, it weakens the social realism.

The intense screenplay by Yan Laoshi, Yang Weiwei and Gu is crammed with flashbacks and dream sequences causing a mashed-up sense of time, and allowing no room for any quiet spiritual reflection on life and death. Cinematographer-turned-director Gu’s forte in his past works is to animate the buried thoughts and dreams of his pensive, repressed characters via wordless, electrifying visuals. He coaxes lush compositions of rural scenery from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Yang Tao but whenever there is human drama, the voluble characters always drown out the visual impact.

Opened: Hong Kong June 16
Production Companies: Stellar Mega (Beijing) Films, Beijing Forbidden City Culture & Media Co. Ltd., Chengdu Media Group Pioneer Film & Broadcasting Ltd.
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Aaron Kwok, Jiang Wenli, Pu Cunxin
Director: Gu Changwei
Screenwriters: Yan Laoshi, Yang Weiwei, Gu Changwei
Producers: Chen Xiaodong, Gu Changwei
Executive producer: Li Kai
Presented by: Tan Hong, Bill Kong, Ma Hefeng, Zhang Qiang, He Bing
Directors of photography: Yang Tao, Christopher Doyle
Art director: Wang Weiyuan, Han Dahai
Music: Zuoxiao Zuozou
Costume designer: Zhu Yongyi
Editor: Li Dianxi
Sales: Edko Films Limited
No rating, 101 minutes