FILM REVIEW: Beijing 'Sparkles' Like an 'Urban Wonderland' in 'A Beautiful Life'

This Chinese romantic melodrama proves that cinematic clichés are an international commodity. 

Two of China’s leading actors play lovers in Andrew Lau's romantic melodrama.

NEW YORK -- Most Chinese films that land on our shores are either grandiose historical epics or kung-fu extravaganzas. Andrew Lau’s A Beautiful Life breaks the mold, but only succeeds in demonstrating that Chinese filmmakers are just as capable of creating maudlin romantic melodramas as Hollywood.

Two of China’s reigning stars play the lead roles in this formulaic love story, which features characters suffering from alcoholism, muteness, blindness, autism and early onset dementia.

In traditional Hollywood fashion, the main protagonists meet cute, in this case when Li Peiru (Shu Qi), a beautiful real-estate agent, gets drunk at a karaoke bar and throws up on Fang Zhendong (Liu Ye), a principled, lonely cop. Not only does he take her home and pour her into bed, he also leaves a note warning her of the dangers of alcohol and reminding her that he owes her money for a cab.

As formula would have it, they meet again, and Zhendong quickly falls for the flirtatious Peiru despite the fact that she’s having a tortuous affair with a married man who she hopes will further her career.

As the relationship sputters along in would-be adorable fashion, we are introduced to such characters as Zhendong’s autistic brother, who makes his living handing out flyers while dressed in a silly animal costume, and the brother’s mute girlfriend. Then, as Peiru gradually abandons her materialistic values and falls in love with the good hearted Zhendong, it becomes apparent that he is suffering from a disease that is robbing him of his mental faculties.

Considering that director Lau (the Infernal Affairs trilogy) is also a renowned cinematographer, the film not surprisingly looks gorgeous. The romantic convolutions occur in a Beijing that sparkles like a neon-lit urban wonderland. And the two leads have charm and charisma to spare. They invest their broadly written characters with subtle and comic grace notes that nearly, but not quite, compensate for the screenplay’s endless contrivances.

By the time Zhendong falls into a coma after getting clubbed in the head while pursuing a suspect, even the most indulgent audiences will have given up on the melodramatic plot convolutions that would have embarrassed even 1940’s Warner Brothers.