'Love After Love' ('Di Yu Lu Xiang'): Film Review | Venice 2020

Love After Love
Venice Film Festival
A hushed but gorgeous melodrama.

Hong Kong veteran director Ann Hui ('A Simple Life') returns to Venice with a gorgeously appointed period piece.

Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, one of Venice’s two Career Golden Lion recipients this year alongside Tilda Swinton, brings prewar Hong Kong to exquisite if restrained life in her latest historical drama, Love After Love (Di Yu Lu Xiang). This is the veteran Hong Kong New Wave filmmaker’s third adaptation of a work by Chinese-born writer Eileen Chang, whose writings were also the basis for Hui’s Love In a Fallen City from 1984 and 1997’s Eighteen Springs, as well as another film from the Biennale’s storied history: Ang Lee’s Golden Lion winner Lust, Caution. Besides Hui at the helm, the involvement of star cinematographer Christopher Doyle, famous for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, and sterling composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant, The Last Emperor) should further help attract the attention of cinephiles around the globe.

Love After Love tells the story of Ge Weilong (Sandra Ma), a young woman from Shanghai who turns up on the doorstep of Madame Liang (Faye Yu), her much richer aunt living the good life in prewar Hong Kong. Weilong wants to study in Hong Kong but has no money and is hoping her aunt might help her out. However, Weilong’s father and aunt Liang, his sister, aren’t on good terms, with the latter stating that she’d “gladly pay for his coffin” but would not otherwise give him a cent. That she still takes in the girl suggests not a sudden and atypical outpouring of familial love or general pity for an inexperienced young woman, but rather foreshadows something more ominous: Madame Liang — note that name — might see a way she can profit from having the beautiful and somewhat naive young lady in her household, which has been surviving at least partially on the generosity of rich male acquaintances.

This kind of speculation about the motives behind characters’ often unexplained decisions and actions and the constant need to read between the lines are the general modus operandi of screenwriter Wang Anyi (Everlasting Regret, Temptress Moon), who here adapts Chang’s short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier. This creates a kind of dual layering.

The surface of Love After Love offers a beautifully gilded and almost overly formal story about the sorrows of a young woman who doesn’t seem to do a lot of studying and who pays a high price for her innocence and gullibility. This stratum’s narrative mechanics function like a classical melodrama with its cunning machinations, thwarted expectations and complicated romances, even if Hui’s tone is hushed and studiedly demure rather than melodramatic. The choice makes sense, given that the survival of Liang’s household requires that they keep up appearances. Paradoxically, access to the city’s inner circle of rich people whom they need to finance their subsistence depends on their reputation as an equally affluent clan.

“Everything is done the British way,” Madame Liang insists, which suggests not only that she’s au courant with what Hong Kong high society expected of people before the war but also that everything that they do is an act, an imposed, foreign façade that doesn’t come naturally to the well-off locals. Hui ensures the idea also has a darkly ironic undertone because white people are practically invisible here. The few we do spot are either nuns or drunk aggressors, neither of which would embody any kind of supposed example of British excellence the Liang family would want to follow. Hui never shies away from the fact that the people she portrays are at least a little racist, sexist or classist, though she doesn’t judge them, which makes their casual remarks even more frightening.

The narrative’s second layer, which is buried underneath the first, suggests why the characters do what they do, even if they don’t necessarily address it explicitly. One of the story’s main ideas is that true love is a fantasy but that temporary satisfaction is a sellable commodity that, for many a buyer, comes close enough. Indeed, Love After Love sees practically all human interaction as an economic barter system — the ugly gears grinding underneath a perfect-looking world of silk- and brocade-lined drawing rooms, meticulously laid-out gardens and spotless driveways lined with miles of pagoda-shaped lights. (Speaking of lights: One sequence specifically recalls Zhang Yimou’s seminal Raise the Red Lantern, which similarly looked at the entrance of a young woman into a household for economic reasons who then finds herself entrapped).

What Weilong makes of the world and situations she encounters isn’t immediately apparent and indeed if there’s one thing to criticize, it is that she’s occasionally too passive and hard to read. While she slowly turns into a plaything for Madame Liang’s morally questionable needs and is possibly corrupted, a new upright character makes his entrance. He, however, is a seasoned pro from this milieu instead of a newcomer. This is George Chiao (Eddie Peng), a handsome playboy whose father won’t leave him much of an inheritance (so he should start thinking about marrying into money). He likes Weilong so much he never lies to her, which makes his character quite unique. The cruelty of the world they move in, however, demands that he tell her that he can’t marry her, though he does say he could make her happy. This being a melodrama, Weilong of course falls head-over-heels in love with him.

As suggested earlier, appearances are a major part of the story; things need to be so stunningly beautiful they can continue to distract from the structural rot just underneath. Sakamoto’s score, like the film’s tone, is almost whisper-like, especially early on, while Doyle captures all that splendor perfectly. He loves to play with light, as in a shot in which a decanter of whiskey on a table, caught in the sun, illuminates a shadowy room.

Production designer Zhao Hai, who previously worked with Hui on her 2014 period piece The Golden Age, also fully delivers here, as does ace Japanese costume designer Emi Wada (Kurosawa’s Ran, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers). There’s a breathtaking scene in which Madame Liang, dressed in a green turban and a dark blouse decorated with red and green flowers, moves in a dimly lit room with crimson walls and full of dark, lacquered furniture. The only window offers a peek at red flowers and their green stems in a pot on the windowsill outside. Everything is so attractively textured and perfectly color-coordinated it almost feels fake — which is of course entirely the point.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Alibaba Pictures, Hehe Pictures, Bluebird Film
Cast: Sandra Ma, Faye Yu, Eddie Peng, Ning Chang, Fan Wei, Isabella Leong, Zhang Jianing, Yin Fang, Paul Chun, Bai Bing
Director: Ann Hui
Screenplay: Wang Anyi, based on the short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier by Eileen Chang
Producer: Danny Liu
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Production design: Zhao Hai
Costume design: Emi Wada
Editing: Mary Stephen
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Sales: Fortissimo

In Mandarin
No rating, 144 minutes