Smartly written and cast, with a magnetic lead perf by actress Yan Bingyan, “Teeth of Love” draws a satisfying amount of dramatic blood. Following a young woman’s three painful affaires du coeur across 10 years, impressive debut feature by Beijing Film Academy prof Zhuang Yuxin puts her emotional maturation centerstage rather than just retreading China’s changing social and political landscape. Despite its cheesy sounding title — directly translated from the Chinese, in which it sounds considerably better — fests seeking well-tuned Mainland drama should bite.
In a needlessly manipulative framing device, which reps film’s only false note, pic starts in 1987, as late-20s Qian Yehong (Yan) tells her dentist (Gao Yuan) she’s used to pain as he lowers the drill. Skirting the masochistic streak that runs through the script, pic flashes back to 1977, a year after the official end of the Cultural Revolution, when Qian (also Yan, but scarcely recognizable) was leader of a gang of female bullies at a Beijing high school.
Qian and her pals have it in for shy classmate Lin Jie (Wu Jiaojiao), whom they trash as a slut for supposedly having sex in the woods. The only person to stand up for Lin is He Xuesong (Chi Jia), who first thumps Qian in the back with a brick — which leads to a lifetime weakness — and later shames her by dropping said brick on his own foot.
Weird emotional vibes get even weirder as it turns out He is in love with Qian, discombobulating the latter and jerking her out of her tomboy phase.
A half-hour in, pic moves forward to c. 1980, when Qian, now 22, is a student doctor at a hospital somewhere beyond Beijing. Bonding with a middle-aged patient, Meng Han (Li Hongtao), who’s also a Beijinger — but married with a kid — she finally yields her virginity to him, in a tenderly written scene.
However, the country is still going through a morally and politically conservative hangover from the Mao years. Finding she’s pregnant, Qian agrees with Meng to have a secret abortion — in an extraordinary procedure that could have been risible in the hands of a less talented director and cast but ends up as strangely touching.
The consequences of that abortion set Qian and Meng on divergent paths, leading to the final section, a few years later, which finds Qian working in a Beijing abattoir.
In one of several ironic character twists, Qian is visited by Lin, who’s become almost like a sister. Lin arranges a blind date for Qian with the ultra-shy Wei Yingqiu (Li Naiwen), Lin’s brother-in-law. The two get hitched, but for Qian marriage and motherhood aren’t quite enough.
Though the structure is conventional — adolescence, affair, marriage — Zhuang’s script scores in its details, with changing social values coloring each section in an understated way. In scene after scene, often in interiors, both helmer and cast show a gift for creating emotional tension between pairs of characters, displaying unexpressed feelings of friendship or sexual attraction without becoming self-consciously arty.
On-screen almost the whole time, Yan is terrific, whether as the attitude-heavy teen bully, hard-working student doctor or emotionally unsatisfied young mom. She draws most sparks off older thesp Li Hongtao as the main love of her life, though her playing opposite Li Naiwen, as her third man, shows more gradation, from sly comedy to marital disaffection.
Clean lensing by Li Jun and a sparely used score by Liu Sijun complete a pro package.