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February 18, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): The Equation of Love and Death

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Li Mi de caixiang
Cao Baoping - 2008
Tai Seng Entertainment All Region DVD

Cao Baoping's movie about a taxi driver might not be true film noir in the classic sense, but there is enough mystery and emotional darkness for consideration here. The title translated from Chinese is "Li Mi's Guesses". Like any reasonably good mystery, the audience is kept guessing as well, until clues and connections are more fully revealed. Unlike the classic noir with its occasional infinite blackness and long shadows, The Equation of Love and Death takes place in daytime suffused in bluish gray.

The constantly smoking Li Mi is obsessed with the four years that she has not seen her boyfriend, Fang Wen. Counted are the number of letters received, days between letters and the days since Fang Wen had last written to her. Passengers are the unwitting as well as unwilling recipients of Li Mi's constant obsession, listening to her various theories and attempts to create a logic out of the numbers of days, weeks and months during that four year period.

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The film takes place mostly in Kunming, a major city in southwestern China. Li Mi picks up two men who appear to be out of place in an urban environment. Trouble begins when Li Mi is forced to leave her cab to get change for her passengers. What appears to be a minor inconvenience for the driver and passengers escalates to a more dangerous situation for all involved. Cao cuts between several characters who at first appear to be accidentally connected. What gradually unfolds is both a story of lost love, and of people so desperate for money that they turn to crime for quick financial gain, only to lose everything in the process.

Just as Li Mi is propelled by the memory of Wang Fen, one of the passengers, Shuitian, is convinced that his lost love is somewhere in Kunming. The open faced, smiling Shuitian keeps his dream in spite of all that happens to him. Li Mi eventually discovers the truth about Wang Fen, much to her dismay. In a sense, one could view The Equation of Love and Death as a variation on the story of the destruction of youthful dreams of people from rural environments colliding with the alienation and ultimate loneliness of life in the big city. Shuitian's missing girlfriend ran away from home rather than work as a prostitute at the behest of her mother, a woman who convinces Shuitian that his worthiness would be based on coming home with a large sum of money. Like many classic noir films, money, if not necessarily the root of evil, is often the source of trouble, if not outright corruption.

For most critics, the film belongs to star Zhou Xun, who won the Asian Film Award for her performance as Li Mi. Zhou also starred in another film that could be described as Chinese noir, Lou Ye's Suzhou River. There are some shared qualities to both films, both about love and illusion, and both very much worth seeing. Zhou has been noted as being cast against type, playing a working class woman in drab clothing, although even with no makeup, her freckles often visible, she is still remarkably pretty. The Equation of Love and Death is Cao Baoping's second feature. There is very little in English about Cao, although one article notes his interest in presenting a more realistic look at contemporary Chinese life. Cao participated in a screenwriting workshop at Sundance last year, with a film also centered on a strong female character, hopefully an indication that more of significance will be heard from this filmmaker in the near future.

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More love and death can be found at Ferdy on Film and Self-Styled Siren. The equation of adding your generous donation for helping preserve the classic film, The Sound of Fury, with this special blogathon link, a joint project with The Film Noir Foundation is what this blogathon is all about.

Posted by peter at February 18, 2011 09:39 AM