A striking screen presence is revealed in young actress Li Xinyun in Chinese helmer Zhang Yuan’s “Dada’s Dance,” but third-act script problems prevent the quirky love story from realizing its opening potential. Flag this one from the maverick Zhang as a notch down from his best work (“Seventeen Years,” “Little Red Flowers”), with most potential on the fest circuit and in Chinese film weeks.
Li, 24, made a notable impression — under her birth name Li Xiaofeng — as the cute younger teacher in ’50s-set school-kid allegory “Flowers.” In “Dada,” under her new name Li Xinyun, she effects a remarkable transformation as the mixed-up, unwitting temptress of the pic’s title who’s secretly worshipped by a young neighbor. But though the camera clearly loves the thesp, the character of Dada finally remains elusive at a deeper psychological level.
Li also takes a script credit along with her male co-star, whose name is the same in its Romanized version (though different in Chinese characters) as her original one — Li Xiaofeng.
It’s a hot day in an unidentified city in central China — actually Wuhan — where young Zhao Ye (Li Xiaofeng) spies on Dada (Li Xinyun) as she languidly wakes up, brushes her teeth and absentmindedly dances for her own pleasure. As Dada dresses in shorts and tank-top and goes to work at a local pool hall, Zhang Jian’s observational camera and the full, saturated colors rapidly evoke an average summer’s day in modern urban China.
Dada knows Zhao holds a torch for her but gives him a hard time on the street. Later, after teasingly fooling around in the river with Zhao, Dada goes back to his place to dry her hair and clothes but still leaves him hanging.
Beneath her flirtatious front, the 20-year-old Dada hides a mass of issues. As she confides to her best girlfriend Coco (Liu Yi), a fortune teller said she may be infertile. She also lives with her divorced mother (Gai Ke), who’s dating the lecherous middle-aged Chen Jun (Wu Lanhui). When Dada rejects Chen’s advances, he hits back by claiming her mom isn’t her biological mother, prompting Dada to set out on a journey with the devoted Zhao to find her birth parent.
Second act, set in a pretty rural town, neatly moves the main characters away from home base into a world where neither has any real emotional bearings. A meeting with a woman (Wang Aihua), whom Dada believes is her real mom, has a strange, disconnected feeling — underlined by Andrea Guerra’s ethereal music — that’s paralleled by Zhao’s own sense of dislocation, as Dada first comes on to him in a hotel room and then rejects him.
Back in the big city, after getting drunk at Coco’s wedding, Dada loses control, setting in motion a train of events that see her and Zhao going on the run.
Jerky development during these later reels, and sudden plot lacunae, hint at problems in the script, which loses its early natural flow and leaves too many questions unresolved for the characters to be truly involving. Dada’s changing moods are partly signaled in her costume changes (from casual duds to smart black), but like the main characters’ psychology this is never fully thought through.
With her big eyes and coffee-colored voice, Li Xinyun is never less than watchable. As her young admirer, Li Xiaofeng is OK but not given much background of his own. Gai is good as Dada’s caring mom, trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
Though pic has a different look to the highly controlled one of “Flowers,” overall tech package is fine, led by Zhang’s evocative lensing and Guerra’s atmospheric score (frets, plus strings like a disembodied voice).