'Never Gone': Film Review
Budding stars Kris Wu and Crystal Liu headline a second entry in an emerging modern Chinese romance series.
The trials and tribulations of romance between people from opposite sides of the tracks is the hoary backbone in director Roy Zhou’s vaguely overwrought Never Gone, another entry in the unofficial series based on Xin Yiwu’s novel To Our Youth That Is Fading Away. Following Zhao Wei’s superior So Young, based on same source material, Never Gone is a clunky, retrograde imitation of that coming-of-age exploration of romance and the folly of youth in a rapidly changing early-1990s China.
So Young had more context, and so more meat on its bones, something the wispy Never Gone lacks. Ultimately, however, the film is a shiny piece of contemporary Chinese life with attractive leads, which should carry it to modest release across Asia. Beyond that, its prospects are considerably thinner considering its equally thin content.
The romance at the limp heart of Never Gone is the on-again, off-again love for the ages between Cheng Zhang (Mermaid's Kris Wu) and Su Yunjin (The Assassins' Crystal Liu). The story starts in present-day Manhattan, with Yunjin roaming the streets in search of something — or someone. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon (and it’s not a spoiler) to realize she’s looking for Zhang, particularly after we flash back to 2007 and their first meeting. In their last year of high school, provincial Yunjin transfers in to a prestigious city school, at great expense to her parents, in order to ensure a good education, strong entrance exams and a place at a good university. Zhang is the school’s handsome golden boy: an athlete from a wealthy family and a princess “girlfriend” who’s also beautiful and adored. Naturally, Yunjin hates Zhang, he wins her over with his blinding charisma (not really) and she falls for him, the Cinderella to his Prince Charming. But for the next eight years the relationship is fraught with stress, Zhang’s wealth and position a constant roadblock to their happiness Yunjin cannot get over.
Never Gone’s soft focus and fanciful glow make it look more like an iced tea commercial — when it’s doesn’t look like a shampoo commercial — than a serious romantic drama that contemplates China’s class system and cronyism as its economy modernizes and expands and how that impacts social relationships. That might be expected given that director Zhou has a background in advertising, but it doesn’t quite work as the kind of contemporary star-crossed lovers weepie South Korea does so well. This is straight-up soap opera, with requisite B and C plots designed to support the main idea that money is an insurmountable divide. Yunjin’s second love interest, the working-class library colleague Shen Juan (Qiao Renliang), eventually succumbs to the lure of cash (in a bit of a jealous huff) after discovering Yunjin still has feelings for Zhang. Yunjin’s best gal pal Mo Yuhua (Li Meng) winds up heartbroken when the boyfriend she has on the down low accepts an engagement to a “proper” girl (this even though Yuhua is a doctor).
The film is gauzy enough technically to distract from the occasionally embarrassing lead performances. Liu acquits herself better as the conflicted Yunjin, though screenwriters Zhou, Chen Wenjuan and Pan Yu stretch the limits of credibility for her pride and motivations. Wu appears to be in pain whenever the story demands he express more than impish charm.
Production company: Shanghai Ruyi Film Production
Cast: Crystal Liu, Kris Wu, Qiao Renliang, Li Meng, Jin Shijia, Li Qin, Hao Shaowen
Director: Roy Zhou
Screenwriters: Roy Zhou, Chen Wenjuan, Pan Yu, based on the novel by Xin Yiwu
Producers: Peter Xi, Song Xianqiang, Chris Ke, David Lin, Fu Ruoqing, DunYong, Yedda Chen
Executive producers: Zhang Yibai, Yedda Chen, Zheng Xiaolong, Yang Dan, Huang Qunfei, Max Wang, Peter Xi
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoshi, Li Qiang
Production designer: Liu Tianhang
Editors: Yu Hongchao, Zhang Weili
Music: Reno Wang
Not rated, 100 minutes