The Stolen Years (Bei Tou Zou De Na Wu Nian): Film Review

The Stolen Years Film Still 2013 H
Engaging turns from two of the best young Chinese actors around can't save the film as it slides from spunky rom-com into mortality-questioning tearjerker territory. 

Mainland China’s screen sweetheart du jour, Fay Bai Baihe, and Taiwan’s premier heartthrob, Joseph Chang, team up for Barbara Wong’s amnesia-initiated, love-regained drama.

Once considered one of the sharpest chroniclers of urban, listless romances among Hong Kong youths, Barbara Wong has, like most of her peers, moved beyond the city for opportunities promising bigger budgets and better financial returns. Boasting two of the most well-known (and, given their turns here, best) young Chinese actors today, The Stolen Years certainly poses an upgrade of the tools the director could play with. But with a cost: Made with a much more mainstream market in mind, the spontaneous and spiky emotions that defined (at least partly) Wong’s Hong Kong-set works like Truth or Dare and Break Up Club are no longer present, as the cliches of the terminal-disease tearjerker sub-genre overwhelms a romantic-drama premise with noir possibilities.

Yes, you’ve read it right: The Stolen Years could easily have taken on the tenets of an investigative piece, as the film’s central idea -- well, at least the first 45 minutes of it -- revolves around the protagonist’s desperate pursuit of the truth behind the breakdown of her marriage and also most of her friendships, episodes that she has completely forgotten after a car crash. But rather than capitalizing on the opportunities of exploring the (fatalist) notion of whether people and relationships ultimately repeat themselves however much they are restarted -- an idea that could have offered layered tragicomedy -- Wong’s film opts for simpler (and more simplistic) pleasures by resolving the crisis too easily, and then thrusting the whole narrative towards a hackneyed denouement.

PHOTOS: Summer's Biggest Box Office Hits and Misses

The film has been greeted warmly by mainland Chinese audiences since its release in August -- on the strength of Fay Bai Baihe, probably, who has consolidated her standing as mainland Chinese romance-drama royalty after her success with Love Is Not Blind (2011) and then this year’s A Wedding Invitation -- but its fortunes beyond Hong Kong (from where Wong hails) and Taiwan (where the story is set, and Chang’s home) are doubtful, with its presence abroad probably resulting from bookings at Chinese-themed film festivals in countries with a significant Chinese diaspora.

The narrative proper commences in 2012, when He Mann (Bai) wakes up at a hospital and finds herself unable to remember anything that has happened since her joyous honeymoon in a resort in southern Taiwan with her husband Xie Yu (Joseph Chang) in 2007 -- memories rendered onscreen at the beginning of the film, when handicam-recorded snippets show a couple very much in love, with the two lead actors in their element and building up a vibrant rapport that should have been mined for spontaneous, comic effect.

There are sporadic manifestations of this chemistry, admittedly, as she tries to navigate her way back into Xie’s life, after discovering they already divorced and that her husband is already seeing another person: a squeaky-voiced vixen (Amber An) who, as He will later discover, pales in comparison to the domineering, career-oriented monster she had become in the last years of her marriage.

When told about her problems, Xie’s best friend Ken (Ken Lin) jokingly advises the confused man to reform his ex-wife into a meek, domesticated spouse -- something she nearly gets bought into, as she attempts to win Xie’s heart by doing all the cooking and household chores her previous argumentative self would never touch with even the biggest iPad. Indeed, closure seems very much in hand as He emerges from her coma with her loathsome traits gone, her eating habits transformed -- but her knack as a tip-top advertising executive intriguingly intact, allowing her to easily slide back into her job but as a much better-behaved boss.

PHOTOS: Toronto: Exclusive Instagram Photos of the Fest's Biggest Stars

And it’s exactly at this plot point that The Stolen Years begins to lose its focus. Xie’s help in (implicitly) easing He back into her office basically puts an end to the woman’s self-proclaimed (and initially seemingly challenging) mission in piecing her lost past together again; his introduction of He’s army of archetypical underlings (the earnest disciple, the cleavage-flashing simpleton, the gay creative genius, the technical-savvy nerd) is a visual gag that doesn’t lead anywhere -- not in how the viewer is to understand He’s workplace (which doesn’t really figure that much in the story anyway) or her character itself.

Still, the first hour of the film does offer some comedic moments that play off the conflicting characters of Xie’s/Chang’s stoic persona and He’s/Bai’s endearing-fumbler qualities. But the film really comes aground when it departs from the intriguing premise as presented in its title -- the rationale of setting the “present” as 2012 (when the film was shot and slated for release in 2013) soon becomes clear, as the post-reunion tragic twist sets in. He is to struggle with the onset of Alzheimer’s and Xie is to be shown doing his utmost best in attending to her physical needs and her emotional health -- a tragic toil made doubly wretched when He opts for a cure that leads to a more horrid consequence and, of course, a final tearing of heartstrings. By this juncture, the disappearance of the sometimes rough-hewn vigor that characterizes Wong’s early-career films is almost complete: Instead, she’s channeling the spirit of her previous mainland Chinese co-production The Allure of Tears -- a film that does what exactly what it says on the can.

Sometimes a film’s merits and flaws can converge in a single, key sequence -- and The Stolen Years’ inability to carry a promising premise through could be readily evaluated with the scene in which Xie plans to re-propose to the already ailing He. In an arrangement resembling U2’s Kevin Godley-directed "Sweetest Thing" video, He is seated on the back of a slowly-traveling car while family and friends take turns jumping into view to perform their own song-and-dance routines -- with the fanfare ending when Xie appears again to kneel down pop the question.

Wong’s stab at doing a one-shot, lest it be a relatively uncomplicated attempt, reveals a certain aesthetic audacity -- given the film is of the straightforward, melodramatic variety. Then again, this visual experiment-of-sorts is undermined by several cutaway shots taken from a camera shooting the “parade” from above and a finale that's out of sync with the choreography that came before. They could be seen as markers of the director’s ambitions buckling under the pressure of mainstream norms -- stolen visions lost in the passage of time, maybe, for an actor-turned-filmmaker whose first film, a thoughtful tract into femininity titled Woman’s Private Parts, won an award at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2001.

Production companies: Fujian Heng Ye Film Distribution Company, in a co-presentation with TIK Film, Sichuan Chengcheng Movie Culture and Media, Emei Film Group, Light and Magic of China, Beijing New Film Association, StarMedia Limited Company, China Movie Channel
Director: Barbara Wong
Cast: Fay Bai Baihe, Joseph Chang, Ken Lin, Amber An, Christine Fan
Screenwriters: Barbara Wong, Silver Hau, Daryl To, Skipper Cheng
Producer: Grace Song, Andy Chen
Executive producers: Rong Yang, Michael Liu, Tseng Nai-chia, Wang Chunliang, Peggy Chiao, Yue Yang
Director of cinematography: Chen Cheng (billed as To Go)
Editing: Kwong Chi-leung, Li Ka-wing
Music: Henry Lai
Art director: Kuo Chih-da
Costume designer: Wei Hsiang-jung
International sales: Golden Scene
No ratings, 111 minutes