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Love Battlefield

      

From left to right: Wang Zhiwen, Niki Chow, and Eason Chan in Love Battlefield.

Chinese: 愛 作戰
Year: 2004
Director: Soi Cheang Pou-Soi
Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Ivy Kong
Cast: Eason Chan Yik-Shun, Niki Chow Lai-Kei, Wang Zhiwen, Qin Hailu, Raymond Wong Ho-Yin, Kenny Kwan Chi-Bun, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Ben Wong Chi-Yin
The Skinny: Eason Chan breaks up with Niki Chow and then promptly goes to hell. Though a tad overdirected, Soi Cheang's Love Battlefield is compelling, unpredictable cinema that's as exciting as Hong Kong filmmaking gets nowadays.
 
  Review
by Kozo:

In an amazing turnaround, Hong Kong Cinema has given us not one, but two really good movies in succession. First there was Derek Yee's One Nite in Mongkok, and now Love Battlefield, an unexpected romance-thriller from director Soi Cheang. The two movies are similar in that both take random, seemingly unconnected events, and weave narrative gold out of them. Both films also provide some measure of surprise—a factor sorely lacking from movies worldwide. While not as cinematically enthralling as One Nite in Mongkok, Love Battlefield does win the war of emotional resonance. Both films can stay with you, but Love Battlefield packs a resounding emotional punch that's been missing from Hong Kong Cinema for far too long. It also packs a full suitcase of plot twists and emotional turns, so here's your spoiler warning. Turn back lest ye run the risk of compromising your viewing experience. We mean it.

Still with us? Eason Chan stars as Yui, an average HK male whose relationship to live-in girlfriend Ching (Niki Chow) is skating on thin ice. The two met in a gloriously romantic fashion (Yui helped fish Ching's shoe out of a river somewhere in rural China), but the blush of newfound romance inevitably gives way to daily problems and minor relationship nitpicking. The two decide to take a trip to Europe to bring some excitement to their lives, but on the morning of their fateful trip, the car—and all their accompanying luggage—is stolen. Tensions and doubts take over, and in the blink of an eye their relationship ends. Shot in an empty parking garage, the breakup of the two young lovers is compelling, painful stuff. It's not a single event, but an amalgam of minor incidents and personal gripes which spurs their emotional parting. In contrast to the over-verbalized breakups usually seen in a Hong Kong film, it's a charged, real moment in Love Battlefield. That's a point for the filmmakers right there.

But that's just the beginning of Yui's trip into Hell. Lucky for him, he happens upon the missing car on a side street. Unlucky for him, his car has been commandeered by a group of rogue Mainland drug smugglers, led by Wah (Wang Zhiwen). Yui is a nurse, so he's kept alive to attend to a wounded member of their gang, but the ordeal is not an easy one. Yui wants to stay alive, but it's clear that the smugglers will kill if absolutely necessary. So Yui finds a second purpose: keep Ching as far away from him—and the smugglers—as possible. That's tougher than it sounds, because Yui's friends (Raymond Wong and Kenny Kwan) are busy trying to get Ching to relent and go back to Yui. But if she does, she might get kidnapped too, or maybe even killed. But when it becomes apparent that something is not right with Yui, Ching has to decide her own course of action. Then...IT ALL GOES TO HELL.

But in a good way, at least for those who dig gripping cinema. The Chinese title for Love Battlefield can roughly be translated as "Love at War", which is a pretty accurate description. Despite the film turning from relationship drama to kidnapping suspense thriller, the focus of the screenplay seems to be how love is part and parcel of our lives—even when you're a vicious killer, or a dopey boyfriend who's busy trying not to get killed. The plot initially seems outlandish, but the way in which events occur and emotions are revealed is remarkably sound, and usually quite believable. Ching and Yui's emotions shift based on exterior events, and neither pauses for undue reflection on what it all means. They might bitch and moan about how their relationship blows, but when love is truly on the line, they can decide in an instant what needs to be done. That theme, and the way characters leap into action to fight for love, is remarkably compelling. It may sound cheesy, but thanks to a sharp, spare screenplay and Soi Cheang's well-paced direction, the literal theme ("People fight for love!") and maybe the occasional line of dialogue are as corny as things get.

Soi Cheang doesn't get everything perfect, though. He gratefully humanizes his characters, but some of the storytelling flourishes are a tad overdirected. Sometimes a big event occurs and there's an all-too-noticeable amping of the soundtrack, or some slow-motion step-printing that just screams "drama!" Love Battlefield has a very emotionally sound screenplay, so doing the Michael Bay thing can be overkill. There are also a few contrived plot devices, and some uninteresting supporting characters. The lead actors do compensate though, and never seem to step beyond the boundaries of the characters they play. Eason Chan is one of Hong Kong's more versatile actors, and seeing him create a character like Yui is a welcome break from the annoying saps he usually essays. He shows fear, weakness, and finally strength, and all the while there's not an ounce of popstar preening. Niki Chow shows promise in a leading female role, and Wang Zhiwen and Qin Hailu (who plays Wah's preganant wife) are compelling as the "bad" guys. The battle for love is something which applies to all the characters in the film, which renders them three-dimensional human beings and not bad guy caricatures.

Ultimately, Love Battlefield is compelling cinema because it simply does what it has to without a lot of extra crap, like moralizing or pontificating on existential issues. There are some moments where Yui shows moral outrage to the actions of his captors, but they seem to arise naturally from character and situation, and don't occur out of some arbitrary need to create meaning. Eventually, Yui discovers just how precarious—and maybe even strong—his position is with the smugglers, which changes his attitude and actions in a believable way. Likewise Ching comes off as believably strong, and whatever darkness or nihilism occurs feels likely and not arbitrary. More than anything, what Love Battlefield does best is sell its mix of genres. This is a romantic-action-drama with massive coincidences and a few obvious plot devices (Hello, two-way wrist communicator!), but Soi Cheang handles the whole shebang with confident storytelling and solid emotion. For surprising, emotionally-complex Hong Kong Cinema, Love Battlefield easily wins the battle, if not the whole war. (Kozo 2004)

 
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

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