Need a good cry? Andrew Lau thinks so, and with A Beautiful Life he's going to get one out of you even if he has to dishonor Hong Kong to do it. Written by Tang Kit-Ming (who co-wrote Lau's Look For a Star and wrote the original story for Needing You), A Beautiful Life stars Shu Qi and Liu Ye as mismatched lovers whose protracted romance requires years, miles and a large suspension of one's disbelief. Clichés abound, but those can be forgiven if the rest of the package – story, acting, direction – can compensate for the expected generic stuff. Unfortunately the rest of the package is uneven and sometimes becomes alienating or insulting. Blame can be spread around widely, though some people are more at fault than others. We’ll point them out!
A Beautiful Life flips around old Hong Kong movie tropes. Instead of mainland Chinese arriving in Hong Kong to seek a better life, Hong Kong girl Li Peiru (Shu Qi) goes to Beijing to score in the real estate business. Work is tough; Peiru entertains clients constantly and has become near-alcoholic in her zeal to close those deals. She's also drinking away her self-proclaimed sad existence, as she’s stuck in a dead end relationship with a married man (Andrew Lin) who doesn’t value her as much as she wants. Her consolation: she meets Fang Zhengdong (Liu Ye), a police officer whose decency and kindness are only matched by his sensitivity and righteousness. Soon, puppy dog-eyed Zhengdong is at Peiru’s beck and call, and with good reason: he’s in love.
To this point, A Beautiful Life earns some goodwill, though one might question Zhengdong’s love for the high-maintenance, self-pitying Peiru. Liu Ye helps a lot, giving felt emotion to his doormat-for-love character. Still, the film undoes whatever trust it earns. Besides obvious story convenience and clichéd situations, there's an overwhelming anti-Hong Kong streak – a very alarming detail, since producer and director Andrew Lau hails from Hong Kong and made his name on some of the most acclaimed and popular Hong Kong Cinema out there. And yet here, with A Beautiful Life, he’s all too willing to throw Hong Kong under the bus to please potential China investors. Andrew Lau's bread is buttered on one side and he clearly knows it.
Times are tough for Hong Kong filmmakers and you’re required to please SARFT to get your scripts passed in the mainland. However, Lau and company choose to polish China’s apples by spitting on bushels of Hong Kong bananas. Peiru is mentioned numerous times as coming from Hong Kong, and it’s implied that her self-centered nature has everything do with that. There’s concrete, unmistakable Hong Kong bashing too. Peiru’s family is small-minded and judgemental, and they treat Peiru coldly and even cruelly. Also, a bank loan officer tells Peiru that her loan would have been approved in Hong Kong, but it’s been rejected in China because “in China, you have to obey the law.” Eh? What are they trying to say? That Hong Kong is a place where people don’t obey laws?
Compounding matters, the filmmakers portray all of China's civil servants as sparkling human beings no matter their rank, file or class. Recounting all the instances of China bootlicking in A Beautiful Life would only infuriate anyone looking for balance or honesty in their movies; the filmmakers may has well have titled their film China Rules and Everything Else Sucks. Narratively, the film is just as pandering, with events built into the storyline only for their tear-jerking effect. The actual story seems to end ninety minutes in, with the final half-hour reserved for numerous loaded events. Tragedy is threatened twice, but in each instance nothing changes about the characters or their relationships. The film’s harrowing moments only exist to induce the audience to cry like Pavlovian dogs.
Also, how much suffering do they need to heap onto the main characters? In one interminable monologue, Peiru spills all about her awful family and her sad lot in life, while Zhengdong can only listen passively. Her rant flirts with self-absorption, but the film never portrays it as such, instead asking that we take her pity party at face value. Zhengdong has more than this terrible one-sided romance bothering him: he has to take care of an autistic brother Zhengcong (Olympic gold medallist Tian Liang) and Zhencong’s mute wife Xiaowan (Fairy Feng). Add to this Peiru’s constant borrowing of Zhengdong’s money and food, and he basically has to care of three people. Oh, he also has to care for himself because he's slowly losing his mind to dementia. Yep, throw a disease of the week onto Zhengdong. This movie just doesn't know when to lay off.
Anyone hoping to enjoy A Beautiful Life had best approach with zero cynicism, because only then might they buy this collection of melodramatic clichés as anything but amateur storytelling. Zhengdong’s family dynamic is obviously quite difficult, but it lacks credibility. Frankly, it’s insane to think that Zhengdong's family could exist in real life without someone raising their hand to say, “Hey, you think you need some help? And don’t take care of a baby if you’re suffering from dementia, pal!” Andrew Lau doesn’t improve the script much. True to Andrew Lau form, he makes everything look good, but he piles on the manipulation and stages scenes in an unconvincing manner. People stand around like extras in a TVB drama, watching characters spill their guts or perform to the crowd. Yeah, it all looks great, but Lau can’t hide his puppet strings.
The saving grace of A Beautiful Life - if there is one – is Liu Ye, whose work as the quietly suffering Zhengdong might be considered award-worthy if the rest of the film weren’t such a hot mess. Liu occasionally overacts, but he has a solid emotional base and mines that even during his super-long award-baiting monologues. Ultimately there’s a recognizable, decent guy in Fang Zhengdong. There’s also a recognizable person in Li Peiru, but Shu Qi makes her terribly annoying for half the movie. To her credit, Shu recovers decently from her initial impression as a selfish, insufferable yuppie, and when she cries, something is felt. The actors, the visuals and the superficial situations are enough to make one think they’re watching something quality.
But this movie is not quality. A Beautiful Life is a mediocre melodrama that’s dragged down by its interminable length and a lack of character or narrative progression after the ninety minute mark. The kicker, of course, is the obscene anti-Hong Kong attitude. Granted, Hong Kong films have long portrayed Mainlanders as bumpkins or amoral criminals, so turnabout is fair play. But this is a Hong Kong filmmaker selling out Hong Kong to appeal to China, and he even enlists Anthony Wong to utter the wonderful line, “I never knew a Hong Kong girl could be so loyal.” To the filmmakers: girls from Hong Kong are lining up to kick your ass. A Beautiful Life should just be disappointing, but thanks to the filmmakers’ willingness to sell out, it's something even less. It’s shameful. (Kozo, 2011)