Aquintet of vignettes on love and marriage linked by a young couple’s passage to the altar, “Spicy Love Soup” is a highly assured debut by 30-year-old director Zhang Yang that should prove palatable to occidental tastes if festival programmers put it on their menus. Contempo urban pic — sans peasants, politics or palanquins — proved a tone-setting and eye-opening experience for many Westerners as the opening attraction at London’s recent East West Film Festival, which proved China can now field well-directed, accessible fare beyond the artier stuff that dominates the major fests. Result, which opened locally in May to good B.O., is also a natural pickup for foreign-lingo tube buyers.
Interspersed by lightly comic scenes tracing the romance and marriage of a young Beijing couple (Wang Xuebing, Liu Jie), first seen dining on a spicy hot-pot in the shape of the yin-yang symbol, the various tales are varied in flavor and tone. First up is a fanciful one about a school kid (Zhao Miao) who falls for a girl (Gao Yuanyuan)at school and fakes a recording in which she appears to tell him, “I like you,” causing all sorts of problems with their parents and teachers.
More substantial, and one of the best of the bunch, is the next, in which an elderly widow (Tang Sifu) is deluged with aged suitors after appearing on a TV dating show and, with her daughter’s (Li Mei) contrivance, spends a memorable day with three of them, playing mahjong, dining and dancing in her apartment. Beautifully observed, and with splendid perfs by the men (Liu Zhao, Li Tang, Wen Xingyu), it’s a mellow examination of friendship and companionship that balances the movie.
Only seg that overstreches its comic premise is the third, an initially witty look at a bored young couple (Guo Tao, Xu Fan) who get together, row and then make up through a puerile interest in funny toys. Fourth yarn is the most dramatic and best acted, in which a boy (Sun Yisheng) tries to reconcile his parents (the excellent Pu Cunxin, Lu Liping) by a spot of home cooking, only to discover they’ve already divorced earlier that day. Just when the format seems to have exhausted its goodwill, helmer Zhang neatly switches tack for the final tale, a brief accidental romance between two youngsters (Shao Bing, Xu Jinglei) told entirely in voiceovers by the principals.
Despite its rather sappy English title, pic never reaches down to purely commercial levels in either acting or direction. Zhang’s helming is always carefully controlled without becoming overly arty, lensing is bright and sharp, direct sound recording a major enhancer of performances, and the tempo of each segment adjusted to its subject matter, which builds into a broad portrait of modern Beijing mores.
Tech credits are top-drawer on the $ 200,000 budget — much of which came from Taiwanese sources, marshaled by co-exec producer Peter Loehr, a China-based American — and a selection of mainland and Taiwanese pop songs jolly things along without becoming MTV-ish. (Pic was the first to merit a simultaneous soundtrack release in China.) Taiwanese singer-composer Li Tsung-sheng cameos in the first episode as a schoolteacher.