Antagonism between a selfish Beijing landlady and a young, headstrong tenant develops into friendship and love in the impressive “You and Me,” from Mainland Chinese director Ma Liwen. Against the odds, the helmer takes a potentially static, almost legit-like situation and, with smart directorial choices, transforms it into a high-energy affair that accurately reflects the hateful sparks that fly between the two conflicting protags. Fest slots look certain, and astute distribs with Sino experience should start lining up. Pic is yet to be released in China.
A newcomer to Beijing, resourceful rural student Xiaoma (Gong Zhe), finds out that a controlling old lady, known as Grandma (Jin Yaqin), has a room for rent. The parsimonious biddy balances her rental demand against the student’s ability to pay and makes the decrepit room available to her for a substantial 200 yuan ($25). In the first of many confrontations, Xiaoma tries to bargain her down but Grandma will not budge; she takes the room regardless.
Much to Grandma’s amusement, Xiaoma tries to make the room and the neglected courtyard inhabitable. In the process, Xiaoma sells assorted debris to a junk dealer, and Grandma quickly demands she gets payment for her own items. In a series of subsequent negotiations (phone, gas, electricity, etc), Xiaoma similarly comes off second best. The frustrated student is soon spitting out insults, and truces between the two are as brief as they are intense.
Despite all this, Grandma makes strident inquiries about Xiaoma’s romantic life and offers her grandson, a student, as a potential suitor. Xiaoma resents the intrusion but it’s the first step in the pair becoming closer. Their journey to friendship is convincingly portrayed, with a disarming authenticity.
Ma’s direction is so good it could be used as a textbook for how to enliven two-handers set in confined spaces. Rapid cuts and whip pans during the ferocious exchanges help keep the atmosphere pumped, while extreme close-ups accentuate the intimacy of the situation and the intensity of the emotions expressed. Kudos also to lensers Wu Di and Wu Wei, who operate well in cramped conditions but also impress in the few wider shots that establish the passing seasons. Use of two d.p.’s could be due to scheduling problems during the pic’s protracted yearlong shoot.
Perfs by the two women are riveting. Gong, a photography student who insists this is a one-off away from her career as a shutterbug, proves photography’s gain is cinema’s loss. Feisty 80-year-old Jin, who has a background in Chinese opera, deservedly scored the actress nod from Tokyo’s competition jury.
Score by well-known pop musician Dou Wei makes a strong contribution to the atmosphere, and will surprise even his Mainland fans with its spare but judicious use of traditional Chinese instruments. Tech credits are shoestring but solid, with only occasional lapses (insufficient lighting, etc.) marring the finished product. Original title means “The Two of Us.”