'Someone to Talk to': Film Review | Busan 2016
Director Liu Yulin dissects how we relate to each other — or not — in this observational drama.
The internet is blessedly free of blame for our universal inability to communicate with one another meaningfully in debuting Beijing filmmaker Liu Yulin’s Someone to Talk to, a fleetingly affecting examination of loneliness, ambition, regret and disappointment that lays the the blame for the state we’re in at our own feet. Though coming out of the gate strong, the film runs out of steam (and narrative) before finally chugging to its conclusion. Liu has a nice collection of recognizable characters to play with, and the Tisch-educated director has a good eye for making the banal seem earth-shattering. She's also a much-needed female voice for the "disheartened with life" sub-genre increasingly coming out of China.
Based on co-screenwriter Liu Zhenyun’s Mao Dun Prize-winning One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand, the director’s grasp outstrips her reach, and the film goes out with a proverbial whimper rather than a bang. Nonetheless, Someone to Talk to’s production polish and resonant subject matter should earn it a place on the festival circuit following its world premiere in the New Currents section at BIFF, and limited release in key urban markets isn’t outside the realm of possibility. The Hong Kong-China co-production’s prospects at home are a wild card, however, as audiences there prefer their hit films noisy, funny, epic or all three.
We begin with Aiguo (Mao Hai) and Lina (Li Qian) in Yanjin (in Henan) enthusiastically filling out their application for a marriage license. They’re rudely interrupted halfway through by a couple so sour they curdle the air around them. Those two are applying for a divorce, and needless to say it’s a portent of things to come for Aiguo and Lina. A decade later, the photo of the happy occasion snapped by Aiguo’s sister Aixiang (Liu Pei) is being taped back together by their daughter Baihui (Li Nuonuo). Aiguo is now working as a cobbler, having left the military behind, and Lina toils at an anonymous factory. Their marriage also has soured.
It’s then that things get sudsy. Lina is having an affair with the suave Jiang (Yu Entai), who is married to Xinting (Qi Xi), a local baker. Not to be outdone, Aixiang, a flatbread vendor, considers a marriage of comfort to kind, middle-aged divorcee Jiefeng (Fan Wei). All of Aiguo’s friends are recommending he simply divorce Lina and get on with his life, but after the adulterers run off a second time, he fakes a search for them, and on his travels runs into former schoolmate Chuhong (Sun Qian), who helps him see the light.
Despite the sheer volume of emotional baggage and crisscrossing plot, Someone to Talk to stays on point in its message that we all need to communicate more, and better (ironically, Aiguo and Lina really connect again after the marriage collapses). Though there’s just too much of everything (a nice tight 90 minutes would suit the material), Liu and Liu never let the main characters fall into archetype and easy victim and villain roles. Lina is subjected to a fair amount of slut shaming, but Li never makes her less than understandable; she's just a young woman who craves emotional fulfillment. Aiguo is petty and vindictive, but he’s also gutted at losing his wife. Aixiang seems to be taking advantage of a decent guy (Jiefeng is by far the most appealing person), but she’s honest about her motivations; about how at 39 she’s getting older and “wants someone to talk to.”
The uniformly strong performances are all delivered in hushed tones, as if that lends weight to the ideas. More than anything it adds to the occasionally somnolent, often aimlessly meandering aesthetic, dragged further down in the last act by an enlightenment via a critically ill child cliche. Young Li was doing a fine job of putting her father in his place without a sudden bout of encephalitis. Regardless of a few missteps, Liu’s first effort is an assured examination of the world right now, and proves she’s one to watch.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival (New Currents)
Production company: Old Western Village Pictures
Cast: Mao Hai, Li Qian, Liu Pei, Fan Wei, Li Nuonuo, Qi Xi, Yu Entai, Zhang Jie, Sun Qian
Director: Liu Yulin
Screenwriter: Liu Zhenyun, based on the book One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand by Liu Zhenyun
Producers: Yang Guoping, Wang Bing, David Lin, Cai Xiao, Yang Dan, Gu, Cheng Di, Gu Yibing
Executive producer: Bill Kong
Director of photography: Wu Di
Production designer: Zhang Jietao
Costume designer: Zhang Ke
Editor: Zhong Yijuan
Music: Gong Pengpeng
World sales: Edko Films
Not rated, 107 minutes