Teeth of Love (Ai Qing De Ya Chi)

Bottom Line: Mainland Chinese "scar film" with a pathological twist.

Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- "Teeth of Love" opens and ends with scenes on the dentist's chair that could reawaken nightmares for the hero of "The Marathon Man." A dental check-up reveals a woman's high pain tolerance, and triggers memories of three love affairs that left painful scars, but didn't stop her asking for more.

With the advent of reform in 1980s China came a boom in films adapted from "scar literature" (shanghen wenxue), humanistic works that revealed the suffering and repression endured during the Cultural Revolution. "Teeth of Love" takes the genre's motif of pain to its illogical extreme. One of the biggest curveballs among Chinese films to hit the Shanghai International Film Festival, this film is too psychologically twisted to be commercially viable, and too aesthetically sloppy to be considered an art film.

The heroine Yehong's life is told in flashback, with the first love affair taking place during the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, she experiences puppy love as a Red Guard, which means being hit with a brick by her admirer, and a lifetime of back pain and rheumatism.

The next phase sees her as a promising medical intern at a provincial hospital, but her affair with a married man leads to an unwanted pregnancy. She decides to prove her love by training her lover to abort their baby, but her career gets a miscarriage too. Reduced to applying her surgical skills at the abattoir, she drifts into an arranged marriage.

Soon, she tires of painless domestic relations, and asks for a divorce. This time, her husband plays the masochist by knocking out his own teeth to give her as a keepsake (she always liked his smile). This brings us back to why she has come to the dentist's in the first place.

Spanning 1977-87, the film makes a feeble attempt at situating a personal human drama against the canopy of profound transformations in China. However, aside from some perfunctorily observed changes of hairstyles, fashion and decor, there is no deep or original insight into the impact of the historical on the individual.

Cinematography is adequate at best, and the evocation of a provincial town's changing face with time is nothing if not standard and cliched. Narrative technique is simple and unobtrusive, but the abortion scene may be seriously upsetting to viewers. Performances are not particularly memorable, but the OTT plot renders sublime acting unnecessary.

While it is possible to interpret Yehong's addiction to pain as a desire for lasting imprints of the past, it remains ambiguous untll the last scene, whether this film is a quasi-feminist eulogy on women's high pain threshold (both physical and emotional) or an exploration of sadomasochistic impulses in relationships. As neither angle is sufficiently developed, one leaves the cinema with a nasty after taste of schadenfreude.

Phoenix International Entertainment
Director-writer-producer: Zhuang Yuxin
Director of photography: Li Jun
Music: Liu Sijun

Qian Yehong: Yan Bingyan
Meng Han: Li Hongtao
Wei Yingqiu: Li Naiwen
He Xuesong: Chi Jia
Running time -- 114 minutes
No MPAA rating