A female cabbie in southern China finds her already paranoid existence thrown into complete disarray in “The Equation of Love and Death,” a one-mishap-leads-to-another black comedy held together by a superb perf from mainland actress Zhou Xun. Minutely detailed sophomore solo outing by writer-director Cao Baoping (2006’s “Trouble Makers”) loses its narrative thread a couple reels before the end. But pic’s teasing, shaggy-dog structure and involving performances confirm Cao as a considerable writing talent with an original style. Pic opened to OK B.O. in China mid-September and subsequently copped the New Directors award at the San Sebastian fest.
From its jittery opening — with chain-smoking cabbie Li Mi (Zhou) obsessively counting out numbers to her bemused passengers, as she details how she’s been waiting four years to hear from her b.f. — pic plunges into its labyrinthine story with much the same bravado displayed in “Trouble Makers.” However, unlike that sadly disregarded rural black comedy, the setting here is a big city (Kunming, capital of Yunnan province) and the name of the game is not local politicking but the black hand of coincidence.
As Li goes off to get change, her two passengers — excitable Qiu Huogui (Wang Yanhui) and lovelorn Qiu Shuitian (Wang Baoqiang) — think she’s cheated them and make off with her magazine, which is full of photos of a young guy. Soon afterward, a poetry-spouting weirdo (Dong Linda) falls to his death from a bridge, crashing onto a car driven by Ma Bing (Deng Chao) and his wife, Feifei (Wang Ning). Ma is a dead ringer for the guy in the photos.
Though the viewer is left pretty much in the cold as to what exactly is going on, pic maintains the opening reel’s momentum as the two Qius hook up again with Li and she drives them out of town. But Li’s troubles are only just starting, as the duo nervously kidnap her and demand 2,000 yuan ($300), which she doesn’t have.Story’s mists start to clear 45 minutes in, when Li is called in by the police a couple days later to identify a corpse and investigating cop Ye Qingcheng (Zhang Hanyu) tries to piece together the story of that fateful day. Third act establishes the pic’s whole tangled backstory.
Though this final section contains some clever twists, there’s a sense of the air having left the balloon during the last 20 minutes. Until then, the performances maintain the initial dramatic momentum through the second-act explanations.
Pic is motored by another saturated perf from the remarkable, throaty-voiced Zhou, who’s ably partnered from the halfway mark by Zhang (the lead in the big-budget war drama “Assembly”) as the tough but fair cop. Deng, also from “Assembly,” is fine as the slippery Ma/Fang.
Realistic lensing of Kunming and surrounding locations by d.p. Yang Shu is let down by dull, watery processing that gives pic a DV-to-35mm look, even though it was shot on film. Original Chinese title, not much better than the portentous English one, literally means “Li Mi’s Supposition.”