The Equation of Love and Death -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- One thing is certain in "The Equation of Love and Death." Life's a bitch if you are a taxi driver in China. The rest is conjecture and conundrums until the revelatory last reel. A highly charged, if overwrought debut by Cao Baoping, the mystery-romance serves up a triple-whammy of genres -- a desperado road movie forking out into a heist thriller that furtively segues into a wrenching l'amour fou.

Commercial release in China reportedly earned 1.7 million yuan plus in the first week. Cao's New Director Award from the San Sebastian Film Festival and leading lady Zhou Xun's knockout performance should add up to interest in Europe, at least amid festival circuits.

No taxi driver in Kunming city can be more unlucky than Li Mi (Zhou). First, two fishy passengers make off with her prized magazine. Then, the same men board her vehicle again and make her a driver at knifepoint. Shot through the dashboard for claustrophobic effect, the dangerous clashes and her close-shave escape make for palm-sweating tension.

The atmosphere of random chaos and blind hysteria in the first act shifts into puzzling coincidences and mounting intrigue when Li Mi is called in to assist police investigations on her apprehended captors. She is more anxious to recover her magazine than to see justice done to her offenders. It is clipped full of photos of her boyfriend, who went missing four years ago.

Li Mi's obsession is mirrored by one of her captors, who also has a lost love and wants her to help him find his missing woman. Used as bait by the cops, the search turns into a cat-and-mouse chase that leads her to an unbearable truth. The final twists show off the script's mathematical plotting, but they also overshadow the tremendous love theme, which is a torch song to a whole class of underachievers flying under China's social radar.

Cao has given Zhou a role she can sink her teeth into -- a high-strung, chain-smoking embodiment of emotional wreckage. It is lack of closure, not loss, that really torments Li Mi. Zhou applies herself to her mangled feelings of pain, anger, doubt and hope with ferocious passion.

Production: Huayi Brothers Media Corp./Sundream Motion Pictures Ltd.

Cast: Zhou Xu, Zhang Hanyu, Deng Chao, Wang Baoqiang
Director-screenwriter: Cao Baoping
Executive Producers: Fu Jia
Produced by: Wang Zhongjun, Tsui Siu-ming
Supervising producer: Chen Kuo-fu
Director of Photography: Yang Shu
Art director: Wei Xinhua
Music: Bi Xiaodi, Douwei
Costume designer: Zhang Hongyan
Editor: Mo Xiaojie
Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corp
No rating, 96 minutes