As firmly fixated on a bygone China, and working with a mix of Chinese and American artists as she was on her previous “Shadow Magic,” helmer Ann Hu produces an unappealing, stiff melodrama in 1948-set “Beauty Remains.” Love triangle pitting sisters in a wealthy household against each other is an artificially decorated pulp romance trapped somewhere between an outsider’s and insider’s view of cultural and domestic turmoil. Performing mildly in local February runs, pic will find most auds yawning at what looks like a rehash of a Chinese cinema mode past its prime.
Born as a bastard child of northern Chinese capitalist Master Li and made to work as his housekeeper, the driven Fei (Zhou Xun, of Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River”) is informed while at school that Li has died.
Li’s will links the continuation of her education to living at home with her long-estranged half-sister Ying (Vivian Wu, of “The Pillow Book”), who treats the younger Fei like a lower caste subject. When she’s at school, however, Fei feels pressure from her working class fellow students not to join the rich elites now that Communism is being felt across the nation.
Early stretch lays out the varied personal and socially potent tapestry that distinguished Lou’s “Purple Butterfly” (sans the gunfire and intricate cinematic technique), although Zhou’s whispery, wordy voiceover narration becomes annoying. Her Fei blends into the lavish lifestyle, and eventually matches her sister’s nastiness.
When Ying insists longtime b.f. and casino owner Huang (Wang Zhi Wen) marry her, Fei works a wedge between the couple, causing a love triangle of the sort that may have interested Chen Kaige more than a decade hence.
The script — first written in English by Yank writers Beth Schacter and Michael Eldridge, then translated into Mandarin by Zhang Yimou’s regular collaborator Wang Bin — betrays a tug-and-pull between Western tendencies for plotting and a fairy tale style, and a Chinese taste for ritualism and social themes. To be sure, these two poles needn’t be at odds (witness the long string of East-West cinema from Feuillade’s “Irma Vep” to Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” saga), but the ultra-stiff dialogue, familiar storytelling, stolid direction and staging, and molasses pacing push auds toward boredom.
Hu only occasionally prompts her actors out of a mannered, period characterization, with Wang giving his Huang an enticing bad-boy spark.
Scott Kevan’s overly lush lensing is about as far as this d.p. can get from “Cabin Fever,” while production designers Carol Wells and Feng Li Gang tastefully decorate existing interiors found in production locale of northern city of Qingdao. Production’s uneasy blend of West and East gets out of hand, however, with an ersatz jazz score by Sasha Gordon.