'Pleasure. Love.': Sundance Review

Pleasure. Love. still - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Two halves don't quite add up to something greater.

Chinese rookie director Huang Yao's beautifully shot debut premiered at Sundance in the World Dramatic competition.

Two couples in intense relationships have to deal with cheating in rookie Chinese director Huang Yao’s bipartite drama Pleasure. Love. (Huan Ai). Though beautifully shot (if heavily color-corrected), with gold-and-copper indoors lovemaking sessions and exterior nighttime shots in shades of ultramarine, turquoise and black, the film is less instantly eye-catching on a narrative level, with many of the events and characters from part one turning up in unexpected and even mutually exclusive ways in part two. This turns the pic as a whole into less of a straightforward sultry romantic drama than a more theoretical meditation on love and experience — or the lack thereof. After its world premiere at Sundance, the movie should see further festival engagements line up, though it is probably too rarefied for theatrical exhibition in most countries except selected Asian territories and curious cinephile nations such as France.

In the film’s first part, only called Pleasure, a young man named Jiang Nan (charismatic newcomer Ying Daizhen) is a penniless writer struggling to pay the rent sometime in or after the summer of 2001, when it was announced that Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. At a dilapidated dance hall with a rather indiscriminate playlist — it segues from a treacly Chinese song to EDM to a pan-flute version of the folk song "Auld Lang Syne" — Jiang meets the spellbinding and somewhat older Hu Yajie (Yu Nan). A successful businesswoman as well as a sight to behold, Jiang falls head-over-heels for Hu and the two embark on an intense love affair.

However, despite the chapter title, the inexperienced younger man is clearly less in love with the physical act of lovemaking than with the occasionally mysteriously standoffish woman herself. This becomes especially clear in a scene — in all senses of the word — in a restaurant in which he confronts Hu, who’s dining there with another (more mature) man.

In part two, called Love, an older man also named Jiang Nan (now played by Gua Xiaodong) is a successful businessman who meets a young girl, also named Yajie (Ying Daizhen) at the same dance hall. The younger Yajie even draws a cartoon onto a lampshade, which the older Yajie showed Nan in part one, explaining that she drew it “10 years ago.” This is, of course, physically impossible, since Jiang is much older in the second section, supposedly set a decade before part one. Unless there are two men with exactly the same names and the transfer of qualities from one couple to the other — whereby a young penniless writer becomes a successful older novelist — is all by accident. To further complicate matters, the intentionally somewhat timeless production and costume design suggest that everything took place in roughly the last two decades or so without ever pinning down the exact timeframe.

Rather than trying to tell two separate but largely complementary love stories, Huang seems more interested in exploring more conceptual notions of experience, trust and memory and how these function in a relationship. And since experience is a combination of lived-through events and wisdom accumulated over time, it makes sense that the director, who also wrote the screenplay, would be interested in playing around with time to get to the heart of his themes.

But since each couple only has about 45 minutes to develop their story, they never seem to go very deep beyond the familiar trappings of tales about lust, love and jealousy. Indeed, the two different timelines are more like a rough notion of a good idea rather than a fully developed narrative sleight of hand that unearths deeper themes buried beneath the surface of both stories. It also doesn’t help that Huang, perhaps because he has decided to tell the two stories one after the other, relies on several objects — a music box, a butterfly brooch, a painting of a lakeside view also featured in the film as a real location and a photograph — as leitmotifs throughout, as if they were props functioning as temporal crosscuts across the time stories. The idea seems to be to suggest both love stories are similar and in a sense circular, but that’s hardly a new or very deep insight. That said, it is clear that some of the film's ideas about space and time are clearly lost in translation for a Western audience. 

Though the words “pleasure” and “love” taken together suggest scenes of torrid lovemaking, Huang Yao is no Lou Ye, his compatriot and colleague whose scenes of all-consuming passion in films such as Summer Palace have excited international festival audiences (and infuriated the Chinese censors). Things are relatively tame here, with especially the young Ying unconvincing in his scenes of discreet affection and lovemaking; though some of this can be attributed to the fact his character is a virgin, there’s also a sense he’s just not very comfortable portraying any form of intimacy onscreen.

The standout in the cast is Yu Nan (Golden Bear winner Tuya’s Marriage), though it has to be noted that none of the characters really have all that much to work with. As earlier suggested, Liu Younian’s shimmering cinematography is the standout technical contribution, with other below-the-line credits adequate.  

Production companies: Beijing Hairun Pictures, Henan Xingyuan Legend Media, Beijing Jinshangxing Media
Cast: Gua Xiaodong, Yu Nan, Sun Yi, Ying Daizhen
Writer-director: Huang Yao
Producer: Xiao Hui
Co-producer: Victoria Hon
Director of photography: Liu Younian
Production designer: Sun Jiajun
Costume designer: Wang Peiyi, Wang Xiaoqiong, Yuan Anrong
Editor: Chan Chi Wai
Music: Ding Ke
Casting: Zhang Zaofang
Sales: Hairun Pictures

Not rated, 101 minutes