Love (Ai): Berlin Film Review

Ultra-commercial romantic multi-strander from Taiwan relies on the charms of its eye-friendly cast.

From Taiwan, the commercial romance film centers on three interlocking romantic stories taking place in Taipei and Beijing.

Among the 200-plus new films showing at this year's Berlinale, very few can have been so calculatedly commercial as Love (Ai), the glossy third feature by actor-turned-director "Doze" Niu Chen-Zer. Switching in functional fashion between three interlocking romantic stories taking place in Taipei and Beijing, this ultra-slick variation on the well-established Love, Actually formula is at heart an elaborate showcase for thespian eye-candy. Parlaying the presence of these recognizable faces into a strong post-Valentine's performance at Taiwanese box-offices, it also obtained a limited North American release. Too bland for further festival bookings -- apart from those niche events specializing in romantic fare - it will nevertheless likely prove a durable earner on the small screen for Chinese-speaking audiences.

A familiar presence in Taiwanese movies since his boyhood, Niu attracted overseas attention after swaggering gangster-drama Monga, a smash hit at home, obtained a Berlinale slot. He now returns to the lighter mode of his self-deconstructing 2007 debut What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?! (2007) with Love -- a title that has already been used, at a conservative estimate, at least 70 times in cinema history. The most famous example remains Edmund Goulding's 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation for MGM, the choice of moniker allowing posters to proclaim that stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert "are in Love."
More than eight decades later, this new Love boasts such a bustling ensemble that any similar come-on would seem decidedly impractical. The most intriguing element involves romance between Taiwanese businessman Mark (Mark Jau) and Chinese realtor Xiao-Ye (Vicki Zhao) -- a topical touch given the steady thaw in relations between the island nation and its giant mainland neighbor. Meeting when Xiao-Ye is given the job of showing Mark around an ancient Beijing district where he's thinking of buying property, the pair find they have shared Manchurian ancestry - but squabble to such a degree that, according to long-standing cinematic traditions, their ultimate destiny is never in any doubt.
More complex are the three-sided stories involving Mark's wealthier, older business-colleague Lu (Niu.) Lu's glamorous trophy-girlfriend Zoe (Shu Qi) is tired of her bird-in-a-gilded-cage existence, and is delighted when fate brings her into contact with socially-awkward twentysomething Kuan (Ethan Ruan) -- although, as with Mark and Zhao-Ye, their first encounter is unpromisingly bad-tempered. "Sorry I st-st-stammer," staccatos Kuan. "It's OK, so did George VI" replies the evidently culture-savvy Zoe. Lowly-born Kuan, a genially hunky lad whom the script would have us believe has never even been kissed before, can't believe his luck. But there's trouble at home -- his high-schooler sister Li (Chen Yi-han) is pregnant, and the daddy is Kai (Yu-Yan Peng), who's going out with Li's best friend Ni (Amber Kuo). Complications ensue.
"This is too cheesy!" complains Lu to Zoe when she reveals her infatuation with Kuan, but Niu and his screenwriting collaborators Tseng Li Ting and Wang Qinan don't resist taking their material down corny, predictable avenues. The results are at times mildly farcical -- Zhao gamely throws herself into clumsy Xiao-Ye's many pratfalls; Kai takes a messy dive into the school's septic tank to show his love for Ni. Elsewhere, earnest sentimentality is deployed -- as with a sub-plot involving self-centered Mark ("If you don't have anyone, you don't miss anyone") and Xiao-Ye's sad-eyed, father-deprived tot DouDou. Touches of humor keep the recipe from sliding too far into the saccharine, with Wang Jingchun yielding chuckles as a cop who arrives at helpful junctures to steer Mark and Xiao-Ye together.  
Shot in bright, widescreen digital by sometime Wong Kar-Wai collaborator (Mark) Lee Ping-Bin -- a separate cinematographer is credited for the Beijing sequences -- Love doesn't exactly immerse us in atmospheric location-work, the priority being to light the stunning likes of Shu Qi, the most internationally known of the cast, to maximum advantage. The two capital cities provide fairly generic, sunnily urbanized backdrops for a movie which nods towards the complex historical and cultural connections between China and Taiwan but, even at 128 minutes, never takes time to delve below the surface.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Opens: Friday, Feb. 17 (China Lion) 

Production company: Honto (in co-production with Huayi Brothers) 

Cast: Vicki Zhao, Mark Jau, Shu Qi, Yu-Yan Peng, Amber Kuo, Doze Niu Chen-Zer, Chen Yi-han, Ethan Ruan 

Director: Doze Niu Chen-Zer 

Screenwriters: Doze Niu Chen-Zer, Tseng Li Ting,Wang Qinan  

Producers: Zhonglei Wang, Doze Niu Chen-Zer 

Co-producers: Zhang Dajun,Jimmy Huang, Alan Tong  

Director of photography (Taiwan): (Mark) Lee Ping-Bin 

Production designer: Huang Mei-Ching  

Costumes: Fang Chi-Lun 

Editor: Tseng Li Ting 

Music: Chen Chien-Chi 

Sales Agent: Huayi Brothers, Beijing 

No rating, 128 minutes