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A battle between a man’s two former wives over the final resting place for his grave is the impetus for three generations of women to finally let go of the past while acknowledging its power in Taiwanese actress and director Sylvia Chang’s Love Education, which closed last year’s Busan International Film Festival and is playing at the Hong Kong International Festival. Anyone familiar with Chang’s body of work will know what to expect: an inward-looking examination of feelings and the march of time wrapped around a delicate metaphor, here for generational disconnection and separated families due to Chinese civil strife. But it’s mostly about feelings.
The wretchedly titled Love Education can be viewed as a nice companion piece to, or the logical offspring of, Chang’s 20:30:40 (2004), which also chronicled the divide among three women at different stages in their professional and personal lives, and 2015’s Murmur of the Hearts, with its focus on the fluidity of memory. The gap is wider this time, and there’s a stronger emphasis on the emotions that define how each of the characters sees her place in the world. Chang fans will be pleased, and that should bode well for art house box office in Asia and in urban markets overseas. And though the film is polished, it’s not overly cinematic (despite the contribution of ace lenser Mark Lee), making streaming and download a good outlet. Anyone not tuned in to Chang’s brand of low-impact personal drama will take a pass.
When her mother dies, Huiying (Chang), a teacher nearing retirement, decides the woman should be buried with her deceased husband, whose grave is in his ancestral Hunan province home just outside the city. Along with her milquetoast driving instructor husband, Xiaoping (renowned Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang, The Blue Kite) and her television producer daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting, Mountain Cry), she arrives at the village with the entitled idea she’ll claim the grave and be on her way. But Nanna (Wu Yanshu, Book of Love), the man’s first wife by arranged marriage, has other ideas. Though he abandoned her for the city after just a few months some time in the 1940s, his grave is all she has left of the relationship. She’s been tending it carefully for years and refuses to let it go.
That’s the foundation upon which Chang and co-writer You Xiao Ying build their often astute, vaguely bloated deconstruction of gender roles and the perception of how women subjected to those demands wrestle with them in a shifting world. Chang and You cleverly and efficiently acknowledge how quickly and how drastically things have changed in China — the action unfolds in an anonymous second-tier Anytown — when Huiying begins a hunt for the paperwork that proves her parents were legally married. Buildings have been torn down, bureaucracy is bigger, and it’s all very frustrating even though it’s considered progress.
The hunt for the marriage certificate becomes a symbol of permanence in the face of Huiying’s fears and insecurities stemming from age and abandonment. But the beating heart of the story is in how the three women navigate the meaning of love. Huiying’s determination to move her polygamous father’s grave is confounding until it becomes clear Huiying’s marriage has settled into bland routine, quite the contrary to how she idealizes her parents’ grand, lifelong romance. She’s the bridge between Weiwei and Nanna, who themselves form a sweet, opposites attract-type bond. Nanna stoically maintains her position as a right proper wife — even though when her husband finally returned to her, it was in a coffin. By contrast, Weiwei is contemplating “waiting” for her budding rock-star boyfriend Da (Song Ning-Feng, The Golden Era), who finally decides he’s heading to Beijing to make a go of it.
All this would be straight-up leaden soap opera were it not for the strength of the three leads, and Chang and You’s willingness to make Nanna, Huiying and Weiwei into complete people, warts and all. Chang never shies away from Huiying’s brittle, arrogant and controlling side, and the sheltered Weiwei is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way, though Lang keeps her on just the right side of completely obnoxious. Wu is arguably the real star, though, dignified and quietly layered. Her habit of violently twisting ears when she’s displeased is charmingly aggressive. The men in these women’s lives are, thankfully, neither boors nor cads. Tian gives Xiaoping a recognizable resignation that’s infused with hopefulness for renewal, and Song’s denial of Da’s own ambition rings true.
As with most of Chang’s films, Love Education takes its time getting to its slightly pat conclusion, but its questions about how we quantify romantic love — whether it’s authentic with one person in absentia, and if it should involve so much sacrifice — make the bloated journey a relatively engaging one, even if the end result is a pleasant and innocuous highbrow Lifetime drama.
Production company: Beijing Hairun Pictures
Cast: Sylvia Chang, Lang Yue-Ting, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Song Ning-Feng, Wu Yanshu, Rene Liu, Gong Le, Tan Weiwei
Director: Sylvia Chang
Screenwriter: Sylvia Chang, You Xiao Ying
Producer: Cheng Lai Chun
Executive producer: Victoria Hon
Director of photography: Mark Lee
Production designer: Man Lim-Chung
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Music: KayHuangIn Putonghua
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