Chinese helmer An Zhanjun, whose “Parking Attendant in July” won the Grand Jury prize at Montreal last year, has crafted an old-fashioned melodrama, “Unique Love,” in which male and female characters alike weep bucketfuls at every turn as one wrong choice engenders years of suffering. To add to the drama, virtually all of the film’s main characters are handicapped. An’s strong, evocative visuals, providing fascinating cultural contrasts, would sweep viewer along for the ride, but swelling, painfully saccharine soundtrack steers sobfest toward parody. Pic, too baldly schmaltzy for arthouse auds, should nevertheless interest Asian fest followers.
Not only is hero Xiang (Feng Guoqing) a deaf mute and his g.f. Mei (Wu Yujuan) blind, but Mei’s misguided brother Lian (Liu Wei) stutters and the villain limps. Their handicaps have not prevented Xiang and Mei from forming a fully functional family unit along with the orphaned little girl (Chen Xing) Xiang has adopted.
Preparing meals in well-choreographed harmony or encouraging each other in their different endeavors (she plays the flute and works as a masseuse, he makes and sells tofu), they only await Mei’s brother Lian’s consent to marry and make it official.
An unscrupulous female marriage broker, playing on Lian’s fears, convinces him that Mei would be better off with a rich, lame ex-con who happens to be her client and Lian promptly forces his sister into wedlock. Helmer An makes full dramatic use of Xiang’s deafness as Lian indicates via written notes that everything is honky dory and that he is giving the longtime sweethearts his permission to marry, while the tied-up Mei sobs and screams in the other room.
Xiang’s literal deafness is equated with society’s moral insensitivity as the wedding party avidly watches the unwilling bride being wrestled out of the house amid sounds of crashing crockery. Learning of the true situation, Xiang races to the river only to see the boat bearing his love disappear into the distance.
Six years later Mei reappears much the worse for wear, with her husband and his thugs close behind. Xiang’s little girl has grown up (now played by Zhang Yan) and the script serves up several additional soap-operatic curveballs to throw at the hapless tofu-maker.
For much of its length, “Unique Love” seems to transpire in a timeless little village of narrow cobblestone streets, tiled roofs and quaintly intricate flights of stairs. Xiang grinds his soy beans on a millstone and prepares his tofu in ways that surely have not changed in centuries, traveling by bicycle and transporting his wares on a cart or suspended from shoulder poles. But, gradually, a more contemporary urban China begins to creep into the frame, director An foregrounding or backgrounding temporal contrasts to great effect.
When Xiang carries wooden racks of tofu into a sterilized, ultra-modern hospital room to thank a doctor for saving his daughter, the hokiness of the gesture is redeemed aesthetically by the fascinating clash of colors and textures.
Tech credits are top-flight, with the howling exception of the overwrought music.