Two years before he made the Hong Kong film Rule No. 1, Singaporean director Kelvin Tong was chosen to helm a film financed by Andy Lau’s Focus First Cuts Film Series, an HD-video project meant to spotlight young directors and revitalize Chinese-language cinema in the region. The project, titled simply Love Story, was Tong’s third full-length feature film, sandwiched between his crowd-pleasing local horror flick, The Maid (2005) and the less-successful horror comedy, Men in White (2007). The placement between these two films is curious, considering that Love Story, too, has a distinct horror movie vibe at times in spite of its blatantly self-conscious construction as a “serious art film.” Whatever Tong’s intentions, the resultant movie certainly stands out from the other pictures released under the Focus First Cuts banner. However, that distinction isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Whatever its faults, Love Story’s slippery narrative kicks off in a rather ballsy fashion. With little explanation, the film charts a quirky romance between writer Jiang Qin (Allen Lin) and a mute theatre usher (Tracy Tan). Strangely, the woman covers the lower part of her face with a ninja-like black scarf. Such behavior begs the question, what’s she got to hide? Well, she isn’t disfigured; the truth is she wears it to conceal her ever-moving mouth. Now why is it moving? It turns out that she’s mouthing the words to a banned book, one that a) she can never write down and b) fears she’ll forget if she ever stops reciting it.
Luckily for our protagonist, this multitasking mute communicates with him via portable chalkboard. This bizarre romance soon gives way to another, as our protagonist starts sleeping with an overprotective, bondage-loving cop (Erica Lee), who cleaves to him once she learns that two other famous writers have mysteriously disappeared. Fearing for his safety and hoping to protect gun, she spends increasingly more time with him, whether in the bedroom or the local library. Of course, she (and presumably the audience) is in for a big surprise, as this romance, too, comes to a tragic end.
This turn of events would in itself be ballsy enough, considering that thirty minutes of the film’s running time have already elapsed. But that isn’t all there is to it. The rug is pulled out from under the viewer once again as the opening credits finally roll – what the viewer has been watching this entire time turns out to be little more than the imaginary representation of what happens in the author’s two books: Love is Silence and Love is a Gun. To tell the audience that the last half hour of events they’ve invested themselves in didn’t actually happen is pretty daring in and of itself, and could be interpreted as a big “F-you!” to the audience if not handled correctly. And to a degree, Tong avoids this, although just barely.
Since the first third of the film plays out in a dreamy, purposely opaque manner, it’s a bit of a surprise when the author’s “reality” is finally depicted, and it’s in the same surrealistic fashion as the beginning. The film maintains the same color palette and visual style, further blurring the lines separating fiction and fact. What we soon learn is that there was indeed fact even in the “fiction” that we saw unfold in the first reel.
After the delayed opening credits, Love Story plays out in an episodic, although occasionally disjointed structure, as we follow this popular romance novelist as he tries to meet his publisher’s strict deadlines and churn out one bestseller after another. The bad news is that his books are based entirely on his personal relationships and he’s single again. The good news is he quickly finds a replacement, engaging in two more relationships, both of which provide ample fodder for his next two books. In his affairs with a mousy librarian (Evelyn Tan) and a nightclub wild child (Amanda Ling), fiction and reality become wholly indistinguishable, save for Jiang Qin’s occasional encounters with his publisher.
Ultimately, Love Story explores the ethics of authors using intimate details and personal experiences in their published work, the effect of literature on the reading public, and the nature of love itself. The problem, however, is that it’s not very successful at doing those things. With its pseudo-intellectual posturing and self-conscious art house style, it would be easy to dismiss Love Story as pretentious tripe. I wouldn’t go that far, but the mannered, often sedate acting style of its performers is a chore to watch. Visually and musically, Love Story is fantastic, transcending the HD format and amounting to probably the best looking of all the films in the Focus First Cuts series. But in this case, style can’t trump substance. Though visually arresting, the film – quite ironically – lacks any real heart.
The women are little more than objects, and Allen Lin’s performance as Jiang Qin is so sedate that I thought at times he might be just sleeping with his eyes open. Perhaps that is intentional, and we are meant to wonder how a popular author of romance novels could engage in so many love affairs, completely devoid of actually feelings of love or even basic lustful desires. He has affairs and he has sex, but it's completely empty. Jiang Qin, like the movie, just seems to be going through the motions. Whether we’re in the fictional world of the author’s books or his actual experiences, none of it is recognizable as “real” behavior or experiences. The film is uniformly cold and dispassionate, aside from one standout scene in which diners in a fancy restaurant talk about the effect Lolita, Virginia Woolf, and The Wesley’s Mysterious File(!) have had on their lives – with great comic results. But such moments, I’m afraid, are few and far between.
One of the more provocative aspects of the film occurs when the publisher mentions that Jiang Qin is by no means a critics’ darling, as he always garners two star reviews. It’s an inclusion that suggests that the first thirty minutes of the film was intentionally bad, as it represents the work of a hack writer. But what’s odd here is that the film suggests that his books have actually been very popular with the reading public. Considering the inscrutable, decidedly non-mainstream style of his novels, this is very hard to believe, a minor flaw which is perhaps emblematic of the film as a whole. It’s just too hard to swallow.
Of all of the Focus First Cuts films, Love Story is perhaps the most daring, but it’s also the weakest of the lot. Unlike Crazy Stone or My Mother is a Belly Dancer or I’ll Call You, there’s nothing in it that really showcases Singapore or a Singaporean identity in any recognizable way. Aside from some beautiful shots of the skyline, this is a film that could be made in any country by any filmmaker. At both a local and global level, Love Story is a failure, but a pretty one nonetheless. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)