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December 03, 2009

If You are the One

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Fei Cheng Wu Rao
Feng Xiaogang - 2008
Tai Seng Region 1 DVD

It's too bad that If You are the One was not considered exportable enough for a theatrical release in the U.S. The film, released in late December last year, turned out to be one of the biggest box office successes ever in China. Over 50 million dollars may seem like small change compared to U.S. figures, but among Chinese films, this is the equivalent to Gone with the Wind. More importantly, if You are the One might give Hollywood a clue about making a romantic comedy about adults, for adults.

Feng Xiaogang still indulges in images that can be called beautiful, but unlike The Banquet, with its martial arts retelling of Hamlet, Feng allows himself to wander through several remote locations in China and Japan, while never losing sight of concentrating on his main characters. Fen Qin has come up with an invention that has earned him two million dollars from a venture capitalist. With financial stability, he begins looking for a wife, online, of course. He has a date with an airline stewardess, XiaoXiao, also known as Smiley. Sparks fly, but they are the abrasive kind. Still Qin and Smiley can't quite let go of each other either, with mutual challenges and a chance reunion that brings them together, if incrementally.

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This is not quite Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but it isn't Sandra Bullock chasing the hot young actor du jour either. Even with his wealth, Qin appears as a blue collar guy with his omnipresent white baseball cap. Ge You is, by Hollywood standards, an unlikely person to be a top star, yet I would suspect part of his appeal for his main audience is that he looks like the Chinese everyman. Shu Qi as Smiley, the stewardess in love with a married man, continues to prove her abilities as an actress, and will no doubt continue to be a Chinese language film star even when her days of being eye candy have long past. It is this grounding in reality that helps give If You are the One its charm, unlike too many films that have their main characters so quirky that they could only exist in some filmmaker's imagination.

Feng wisely leaves the quirks to his minor characters. When one of Qin's prospective brides appears wearing what appears to be a tribal wedding costume, and explains that that the last leg of a multi-day journey to her home village requires a day's travel by ox cart, you believe her. Another prospective bride sells cemetery plots and berates Qin for his lack of filial piety. In an indication of a more open China, Qin and one of his dates, a Taiwanese woman, discuss the alternating viewpoints of whether mainland China "fell" or was "liberated". If You are the One takes place in a very contemporary China where the past, personal, historical and cultural, casts its shadow on the present.

Even with a running time of over two hours, the leisurely montages allow for some vicarious enjoyment of two of the film's key locations. First is the West Lake area of Hangzhou, with Qin riding a wooden riverboat, listening to the history of the area, and later contemplating the purchase of a large glass house by the lake. Much of the latter part of the film takes place with Qin and Smiley on a road trip through Hokkaido, in northern Japan. In reading Jason McGrath's brief overview of Feng's films, the travelogue aspects of If You are the One work as both a means of appealing to a pan-Asian audience that may travel more freely between different countries, as a way of setting aside long standing tensions between China and Japan, as well as comparing the more eternal, consistent beauty of nature with the transient relationships of human society based more often than not on external conditions. That Feng has made the most commercially Chinese film is no surprise based on his respect by Chinese audiences.

If You are the One seems to have originated from a different film that Feng was planning, a satire on China's nouveau rich. There is still some satire, though it is a minor part of the film, and an element that should still be easily enjoyed by anyone of any nationality. There are some parallels to be found with the screwball comedies of the 1930s in If You are the One, Feng's interest in making popular films in different genres likewise recalls the career of Howard Hawks. What remains in the films of both countries and eras is the persistence of romance and optimism, even in the face of economic uncertainty.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 3, 2009 12:52 AM