The major emotional conflicts at the heart of this pic only occasionally break the surface in this well-played but monotonal feature.

The major emotional conflicts at the heart of “In Love We Trust” only occasionally break the surface in this well-played but monotonal eighth feature by mainland Chinese helmer Wang Xiaoshuai (“Beijing Bicycle,” “Shanghai Dreams”). Drama about two couples, whose lives are thrown together when the offspring of an earlier marriage develops leukemia, almost works thanks to a convinced performance by lead actress Liu Weiwei as the mother. But pic’s dogged rhythm and flawed script, combined with an over-long running time, work against the movie, which looks to have only modest chances as a specialist release.

Thirtysomething Mei Zhu (Liu), who works for a realtor company, is the devoted mother of cute, 8-year-old Hehe (Zhang Chuqian), her daughter by her previous marriage to building contractor Xiao Lu (Zhang Jiayi). Her contented life with second husband Xie Huaicai (Cheng Taishen), who is an equally devoted stepfather to Hehe, is shattered when the kid is diagnosed with leukemia.

When chemotherapy doesn’t work, the doctors tell Mei Zhu that Hehe needs a bone-marrow transplant; otherwise she has only two or three years left to live. When Mei Zhu and Xiao Lu’s bone marrows prove incompatible, the former suggests one desperate option to the latter: They have another child, by in-vitro fertilization, and use its bone marrow for the transplant. But that depends on whether Xie, and Xiao Lu’s new wife, Dong Fan (Yu Nan, “Tuya’s Marriage”), will agree.

Script takes some 40 minutes to clear its throat before popping the big dramatic question, building the audience’s trust in the characters and preparing it for the major leap of faith. Those 40 minutes, however, are very restrained, with the protags going about their everyday business and family affairs in a glum, wintry Beijing that, though nicely composed in widescreen, doesn’t build a warm or caring enough environment to make the plot jump believable.

Movie’s middle is largely devoted to making Mei Zhu’s decision — as well as Xiao Lu’s complicity — seem emotionally convincing, before further developments lead to an even more extreme proposal by Mei Zhu. Liu, largely known for her TV dramas, is extremely good in the lead role, but doesn’t quite catch the obsessional love for her daughter necessary to make the story work.

Though helmer Wang has shown an aptitude for black comedy in only one past movie — the little-known “Dream House” (1999) — pic could have worked better by taking this route rather than the very earnest one deployed here. Script also seems to have little idea of what to do with the crucial character of Dong Fan, apart from making her a grouchy young professional; several scenes between her and Xiao Lu repeat themselves, and the role only takes on some sympathy in the very final stages.

Still, most of the perfs sustain interest, with Zhang Jiayi bringing some lightness to the pic as Xiao Lu, a typical modern entrepreneur also plagued by business problems. In the movie’s most low-key perf, as the good-hearted Xie, Cheng is exceptionally good, bringing some real heart to the final reel.

Earlier English title was “Left Right,” which translates the Chinese. Though the words appear on screen during the movie’s early stages, the ping-pong idea between the two couples isn’t developed — though, again, could have worked if the whole shebang had been played as a black comedy.

In Love We Trust

China

Production

A Qinghong Debo Film Prod., Dongchun Film & Culture Prod., Stella (Beijing), Duo Ji Film & Culture presentation of a WXS Film Prod. production. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Huang Bin, Isabelle Glachant, Wang Xiaoshuai. Executive producers, Li Bin, Yang Lin, Wang Xiaoshuai, Qin Hong. Directed, written by Wang Xiaoshuai.

Crew

Executive director, Li Shuang. Camera (color, widescreen), Wu Di; editor, Yang Hongyu; music, Dou Wei; music consultant, Da Liu; art director, Lu Dong; sound (Dolby Digital), Fu Kang. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 8, 2008. Running time: 116 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)

With

Liu Weiwei, Yu Nan, Zhang Jiayi, Cheng Taishen, Zhang Chuqian, Gao Yuanyuan, Cao Kefan, Tian Yuan.

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