Ning Ying’s films all have looked at fast-changing realities and disappearing cultural values in her native city, centering on the grandparents of the new China in “For Fun,” the parents in “On the Beat” and now the confused children in “I Love Beijing.” Taking a more soulful, meditative approach than the lighter vein of her early work, this completion of Ning’s informal trilogy feels less coherent and satisfying, rendering its points about the price of progress but failing to fully involve on a dramatic or emotional level. Since its Rotterdam premiere, a further 20 minutes have been removed from the ambling film, which still seems unlikely to have significant impact outside of festivals.
The guide in this loosely structured tour of a city grappling with loss of identity in the face of accelerated change is young, recently divorced taxi driver Desi (Yu Lei), who drifts between encounters with various women in his tireless search for love.
This naturalistically played storyline is effective enough in illustrating the filmmakers’ mixed feelings about the changing society and its uncertain future, and in showing how the new city breeds emotional detachment and alienation.
Chief problem, however, is that Desi’s story is chronicled only in the most distracted, confusing way. The taxi driver ultimately remains a remote figure and a passive, uninteresting witness to his constantly transforming, culturally impoverished environment. The fact that Desi never becomes actively engaged in the world he moves through is clearly the point of the exercise but also its main shortcoming.
Written by Ning with her sister and regular co-scripter Ning Dai, the film is more successful in its less narrative-driven aspects. Gao Fei’s camera cruises the streets, affording casual yet revealing glimpses in long, seductive sequences that recall stylistically the work of Chantal Akerman. Gliding through areas of town dotted with heavy construction work, accompanied by an eclectic mix of mainly Western-influenced music, the film conveys a strong sense of the disappearance of traditional culture in the face of rampant modernization and overdevelopment.
Supplying a texture that’s missing in the dramatic core, this quiet observational approach works well, particularly in one long scene in a park, where activities such as traditional massage and tai chi have been replaced by the sale of junky gadgets and by crass enterprises offering romantic advice.
However, an overextended, monotonous climactic scene at Maxim’s nightclub, populated largely by foreigners, brings the film to a dead halt and would benefit from heavy trimming.
Recut version in the Berlin Forum clocks in at 79 minutes.