Directors: Ten Shimoyama (下山天), Yee Chin-Yen (易智言), Zhang Yibai (张一白)
Cast: Wilson Chen (陳柏霖), Misaki Ito (伊東 美咲), Ryo Kase (加瀬 亮), Mavis Fan (范曉萱), Lu Lu (李小璐), Takashi Tsukamoto (塚本高史)
About Love is a film that is about, well, love. Three short stories, anchored both by theme and occasionally characters, focus on unlikely bonds between young persons from different countries (often with severe language barriers). The middle act is stellar, but the movie bookends suffer from some misfired male characters in their attempt to portray meaningful relationships. Still, the film is wholly enjoyable, well-meaning, and moves along at a brisk pace.
We begin in Japan where Yao (Wilson Chen), a young Taiwanese artist, is taking classes and learning Japanese in Tokyo. The theme is one of displacement, as he sometimes struggles with the language and spends his time riding aimlessly around Tokyo, but also of chance encounters. When he bumps into grieving Michiko (Misaki Ito) on the street, he is immediately smitten despite sharing little more than a glance. He soon discovers that she is a painter, and as he spies on her in her gallery each and every day, it becomes clear that the large landscape mural she is tirelessly working on is becoming increasingly darker in tone. We the audience see that she was dumped by her boyfriend of many years, but Yao just sees a beautiful woman in emotional distress. Naturally, his own artistic skills should be able to charm her out of her slump, right? Right. Here’s my primary issue with this first segment – a charming stalker is still a stalker. What Yao does, anonymously, is tape a caricature of Michiko on the door of her gallery each day, and each rendering of her with a slightly different facial expression. Now here’s where my own reality clashes with this idealized reality that director Ten Shimoyama fashions for his segment of the film. Yes, it’s a sweet fantasy and is well-intentioned, but the idea of someone watching you when you don’t know it and leaving caricatures of you plastered on the window of your workplace is more than a little creepy. As such, I find it hard to identify with the character of Yao.
Luckily, the second segment is a vast improvement. Ryo Kase is Tecchan, a Japanese student in Taipei in a curious relationship with friend A-si (Mavis Fan). When he is called late one night to her apartment to help her put up and paint a large wall shelving unit, romantic feelings ensue, but she stops it before it gets too heated because of her distress over recently splitting from her boyfriend. Tecchan knows that he’s essentially being used, but he goes along with it despite his own romantic ties back home in Japan because feels something for A-si in the here and now. And all this despite the language barrier – his Chinese is practically nonexistent, as is her Japanese, yet their relationship works on film and feels very natural. Anyone who has ever communicated with someone from another country through an enormous language barrier knows just how this feels. Equal parts frustrating and exciting, it makes for the entire film’s best moments. Take a look as A-si teaches Tecchan the appropriate Chinese to use on her ex-boyfriend in an effort to persuade him to come back to her:
Director Yee doesn’t force things, and, like the best Taiwanese filmmakers, gives us an almost voyeuristic look into the ordinary lives of very ordinary people.
Whereas the first segment in Tokyo shows love based on unspoken attraction and coincidental meetings, Yee Chin-Yen’s segment shows love as the complicated yet intoxicating sensation that it is. Zhang Yibai changes it up again for the Shanghai segment where doe-eyed Yun (Lu Lu) falls for the oblivious Shuhei (Takashi Tsukamoto, who also plays Yao’s Japanese language teacher in the Tokyo segment), an exchange student from Tokyo – showing that love can be one-sided and based more on youthful infatuation. Yun lives in the small convenience store that she runs with her mother when Shuhei comes to occupy the room upstairs. For reasons unknown (maybe because he was in Battle Royale), Yun falls for Shuhei, but never directly expresses her affections – at least not in a way that would grab his attention. He’s a bit preoccupied with his failing long-distance relationship. But seriously, who can blame his girlfriend back in Japan for wanting to sever ties with him? Shuhei is very self-absorbed and totally clueless about what’s happening around him, too clueless even to notice the steady advances of a charming young woman who is hopelessly infatuated with him. However, when gazed at as an example of the youthful true love genre of romance films, where the women are often stronger-willed and the men take on a more metrosexual appearance, then this third segment starts to make a little more sense. The nature of his character also makes for a very fitting conclusion.
Equally as important as the themes and characters are the three major cities in which the film takes place. The barren outskirts of Taipei make the characters of Tecchan and A-si stand out, almost forcing them to rely on one another and work through their language difficulties. Meanwhile, the quiet corner of Shanghai provides for a nice contrast between tradition and encroaching modernity and globalization, as personified by the characters. Finally, anyone who has ever visited the heart of Tokyo can tell you that it is an absolute monster of a city, and the thought of running into that right someone in the busiest of districts is a very attractive possibility. Here are some pics of Tokyo from the top of Tokyo Tower during my visit in 2006:
Some poorly conceived characters do not diminish the overall impact of About Love and its examination of love in the age of globalization. The fantastic use of locales and the wonderful middle act make this both a great example of pan-Asian filmmaking and a film that is well worth watching overall.