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As an aspiring Shanghai-based lifestyle magazine writer trying to lift herself beyond her small-town roots and modest means, Up in the Wind‘s protagonist is somewhat adrift in 21st Century China’s rapidly shifting social landscape. The same could be said of Teng Huatao‘s film: While boasting wry and engaging laments about the country’s struggling social climbers — a theme that the director has played to perfection in his 2009 taboo-tackling TV series Dwelling Narrowness (Wo Ju) — the melancholy middle is offset by plot devices deployed to swerve the proceedings back to the trajectories of a commercial genre movie.
While contemplative enough to probe delusions of cosmopolitan grandeur — the hint at Shanghai as a harsh social milieu could well position the film as an antithesis to the urban fairytale depicted in the teen-worshipped Tiny Times films – Up in the Wind is eventually brought down to earth by stuttering storytelling and a final quarter hour of ersatz melodrama, which somehow negates some of the questions being raised at the first half of the film. Not exactly the airy rom-com that brought Teng (and his screenwriter Bao Jingjing) commercial success with their previous effort Love Is Not Blind, which brought in $57.8 million at the Chinese box office, Up in the Wind shouldn’t generate as much traction in the country, and since opening on Dec. 31, it’s grossed $10.6 million.
Marketed largely as a romantic comedy of sorts, Up in the Wind actually doesn’t include a very distinct romance at its core. The film’s lead character Cheng Yumeng (Flowers of War star Ni Ni) is seen bickering with and finally warming up to spoilt rich kid Wang Can (Jing Boran), but words of empathy, acts of encouragement and a final gift void of any romantic connotations are the only things that are exchanged between the pair. Retaining the sentiment shaping Bao’s novel A Travelogue, Or A Guidebook, this framework is a nice counterpoint to how the emerging “chick-flicks” in China are all about young urban women nabbing a great guy and a great job, mostly in that order of priority. In Up in the Wind Cheng is allowed to go through a Nepal-set rite of passage with her thoughts mostly focused on getting her own bearings correct, as she struggles to stick to her ideals or fulfill her dreams in the brights lights of Shanghai.
Her tribulations are mostly shown in what could be seen as Up in the Wind‘s prologue, as Cheng’s big-city existence is laid out. The film opens with her taking a high-class restaurant’s head chef to task, in fluent English, for the most minute flaws in the restaurant’s food and decor. But after her performance ends, it emerges that Cheng is merely a guest at a dinner hosted and attended by rich young women living off their tycoon parents’ fortunes. Cheng takes the subway home, after being dropped off by the limousine she rented as bluff, to her small apartment in an old, elevator-less tenement block.
Her awakening to her sorry state on the social ladder is soon made complete when her editor (Liu Zi) takes her off a long-planned assignment to Tuscany and assigns her to one on Nepal — but not before directing a thorough tirade at a resistant Cheng, which ends with the young writer being told that, as a smalltown girl, “you should have very low expectations of what bliss means.” Subsequent conversations between Cheng and her boss have a similar tone: in yet another invective delivered over the phone after Cheng fought to write a realistic view of Nepalese life, the editor roared: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.”
The most effective parts of the film perhaps lie in these scenes in which Cheng is basically put in her place on the bottom rung of the ladder. Perhaps less convincingly, cinematically speaking, are the awkwardly-placed, black-and-white flashbacks: smacking of soap-opera aesthetics, they show the young writer reflecting on the high ideals she aspired to in journalism school and breaking down as she talks to her parents over the phone while watching other families spending quality time together.
The visual canvas certainly opens up when the story relocates to Nepal, as Cheng and her fellow travelers — including Wang, the naïve young woman Li Meilan (Liu Yase) and a motley crew of bumpkin tourists — embark on trips to Kathmandu and then Pokhara. Apart from the odd, undercooked blue-screen shots and the now nearly-de-rigueur on-screen depictions of tweets and online exchanges, the movie manages to extend its visual template with Cao Dun‘s camerawork on lives being lived elsewhere.
It’s in Nepal that Teng and Bao dare to question the horrid banality of Chinese sightseers by actually bringing a local character (and his culture) to the fore. Tour guide Rasin (Ge Sang) scuffles with Wang when the latter insults a living goddess and then asks his charges whether “all of you don’t believe in anything.” The entourage then disperses, muttering how the itinerary is no fun as the schedule doesn’t allow them time to do some shopping.
Later on, the local angle also takes on some significance in the narrative, as a demonstration seeking better rights for the lower class (something Bao said she encountered herself in Nepal) is woven into Cheng’s escapade, the “fighting for our dreams” slogans serving as a metaphor for her own priorities in life.
It’s nearly inevitable that Wang, who confessed earlier on that his trip to Nepal is a facade to get in his father’s good graces after a botched wedding, would emerge as the somehow altered boy-done-good, as the film concludes. While Wang’s exchanges with Cheng contain many an acerbic nugget, which reveal the class-oriented schisms in China — the arrogance of the rich, the anguish of the have-nots and the desperate attempts of the latter to at least feign the pedigree of the former — he remains a very thinly-sketched character bordering on a caricature, complete with his swift (and insufficiently explained) rediscovery of his conscientious self.
This is just one illustration of the film’s unconvincing attempt at dressing up Cheng’s simple and potentially moving summery tale about someone traveling in an emotional winter — a melodramatic enhancement that both Ni and Jing couldn’t grasp. The complications of some conventional drama, complete with the changing relationship between a rowing pair and a stirring climax, probably weigh down Up in the Wind‘s main storyline exploring a young urbanite’s doubts about surviving modern life. And amidst the beautiful setting of the film’s end — when Cheng and Wang, now best buddies, travel to the top of a mountain so that the much-oppressed small-town girl could finally get a taste of flying — her fury about being trodden upon by the one percent is lost. So all is not well, but carry on nevertheless: it’s all about going home and fighting the same fight, albeit in better spirits, a perking up which Yang Zhijia has certainly helped deliver with sugar-coated production design.
Cheng’s forgetting of life’s injustices at the film’s end probably mirrors one of the put-downs she suffered at the hands of her editor: “You’re trying to talk to me about fairness — it’s so funny. I’ll tell you where you can get that — head down to the ground floor, turn right and walk a few blocks, and there it is, the law courts.” The pursuit of social justice, of course, belongs to another movie altogether, with Teng’s odd moments of relevatory dialogue here serving merely as reminders of real-life distress experienced outside of the narrative.
Production Companies: Perfect World Pictures (Beijing), Beijing iTime Productions, iCinema, Edko Films (Beijing) in association with China Film Group and Youku Tudou
Director: Teng Huatao
Cast: Ni Ni, Jing Boran, Liu Yase, Liu Zi
Producers: Chen Rong, Teng Huatao, Hao Wei, Zhong Shi, Bill Kong, Han Sanping, Gu Yongjiang
Screenwriter: Bao Jingjing, based on her novel A Travelogue, Or A Guidebook
Director of Photography: Cao Dun
Music: Ding Wei, Lin Chaoyang
Production Designer: Yang Zhijia
International Sales: Edko Films
In Mandarin and Nepali
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