Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Baober in Love - a remarkable and vibrantly inventive picture

Whichever way you slice it, "Baober in Love" is a remarkable, vibrantly inventive picture from middle-generation mainland director Li Shaohong, previously known for a handful of sensitive relationship pics ("Family Portrait" the best). After five years of helming TV dramas, she's catapulted back with a hip, f/x-laden allegory about contempo China that is certain to divide opinion... Film opened nationwide in China around St. Valentine's Day, in mid-February.

Li's previous five features, including the dour drama "Bloody Morning" (1990) and femme-centered period piece, "Blush" (1994), were more interested in emotional content than style. "Baober" reverses that polarity with a vengeance, and viewers will be divided over whether content even gets a look-in here.

Opening reels play like a mixture of "Suzhou River" crossed with the wilder moments of Wong Kar Wai (think: "Fallen Angels"), Gaul's Jeunet & Caro (all f/x were handled by France's Duboi effects company) and Vera Chytilova's '60s classic, "Daisies." Hardcore Sinophiles will also notice parallels with Peng Xiaolian and Hu Yihong's kid fantasy, "Magic Umbrella" (2000).

Like a character trapped in a deranged manga, Baober (baby-faced actress Zhou Xun, from "Suzhou River") recalls her Beijing childhood in stunning CG images of the accelerated change the capital has seen during the past two decades. Intercut with this are vid-lensed confessions of lonesome Liu Zhi (Huang Jue), talking about his search for love in a materialistic world.

Liu lives with his domineering wife in an over-designed, modernistic apartment. When Baober finds the lost tape of Liu's private confessions and comes visiting, his wife kicks him out.

Like a crazed firefly, Baober flits around Liu, and eventually persuades him to throw everything aside and enter into her fast-moving universe. In a style halfway between reality and fantasy, this involves them plummeting from a high building onto a huge inflated cushion in a half-finished building's atrium -- a test of faith for Liu that begins his journey into another life.

By this halfway point, pic will have lost about half of its audience and hooked the other half with its energy. Thereafter, the pace slows to a more comprehensible speed, and, unlike many razzle-dazzlers by young directors with little to say, Li starts to flesh out the film's emotional content. As Baober and Liu move into a warehouse apartment and experience living together, with all its ups and downs, the film builds into an often touching portrait of a young woman in search of something beyond her reach who will always remain scarred by her country's rush to modernism.

Pic shows a genuine affection for, rather than rejection of, China's immediate past, from old buildings bulldozed in the name of progress to the communist era (referred to but not made fun of). Aside from its continual visual restlessness -- there isn't an undesigned shot in the whole movie -- the film also has moments of real awe, as the superb effects combine with the ethereal music. On a comedic side, the sequence of Baober rustling up a meal for Liu and his parents (set to "The Magic Flute") is a dazzler.

Inevitably, a lot of the fanciful ideas and half-baked smart dialogue simply doesn't work. It's also not the first film to explore China's rapid changes or its big city bar culture. In the end, the ambitious pic is kept afloat by Zhou's engagingly winsome perf as Baober, a role arguably no other actress could have pulled off. She's well matched by Wang Peiyi as her younger self.

All of the $5 million budget (large by mainland standards) is up on the screen, and tech contributions by Hong Kong and French talent blend seamlessly. Main character's curious name, Baober, stems from the Beijing pronunciation of Baobei, Chinese for "baby" or "babe." -- Reviewed by DEREK ELLEY

Source: http://www.asianfilms.org/film.php?filmid=141

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