Sumptuous lensing and good performances from a name pan-Chinese cast are hobbled by a lame modern-day framing device in period meller “The Knot.” Long-limbed tale, spread across Taiwan and mainland China from the ’40s to the present, is fine when it’s following the lovelorn main characters through war and revolution, but stalls whenever the narrative returns to contempo Asia or Manhattan. Minor surgery could improve the pic overall, equipping it for Sinophile events in the West.
Pic is the first three-way production between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to get a simultaneous release (Dec. 1) in all three territories, as well as being the first in which all the digital intermedia was done in China rather than offshore. Despite heavy promo, the movie flopped in Taiwan and Hong Kong, though in China, it grossed a healthy 37 million yuan or so (around $5 million).
Modern frame centers on a rich, elderly painter in New York (Taiwan vet Chang Gua Ahleh) and her young niece, Isabella (rising Macau-born actress Isabella Leong), who’s roaming the Orient trying to piece together the mystery of her dead Uncle Xue.
Main story starts — with a stunning three-minute, CGI-assisted shot — in late ’40s Taipei, where we meet Qiushui (China’s Chen Kun), a young teacher who coaches and soon falls for Biyun (Taiwan’s Vivian Hsu), teen daughter of rich dentist Wang Tingwu (Taiwan vet Chin Han). Qiushui’s nerdy friend, Zilu (H.K. boybander Steven Cheung), also carries a torch for her.
Just when the young things are about to get engaged against the family’s wishes, Qiushui has to flee Taiwan during the KMT government’s notorious Feb. ’47 crackdown on leftists.
A few years later, Qiushui is serving as a field surgeon during the Korean War and meets the perky, tomboyish Jindi (China’s Li Bingbing), a medical assistant. It’s clear she has designs on him, and she finally persuades him to give up any hope of returning to Biyun, who’s still pining away in Taiwan.
Bare bones of the story hardly do justice to either the performances or Liu Heng’s script, which, while never straying far from the conventions of period melodrama, do conjure up some involving characters. Li excels in a role which calls for difficult changes of emotional register, and Chen is much more animated here than in the recent “The Music Box.” Among the older supporting cast, Chin, a fixture of ’70s Taiwan romancers, has mellowed with age and is surprisingly good as the father.
However, intermittent cutting back to the story of Isabella keeps on diluting the drama. In an appallingly scripted part, Leong is terminally irritating.
Wang Xiaolie’s lensing of locations in Tibet and Fujian (convincingly repping period Taiwan) is often breathtaking, and Zou Ye’s symphonic score a dramatic assist throughout. Original title literally means “The Ballad of Cloud and Water,” but also refers to Biyun’s and Qiushui’s names. English title remains inexplicable.