Strong visuals elevate classy Chinese romancer “A Beautiful Life,” despite an excess of melodrama. “Infernal Affairs” franchise helmer Andrew Lau reteams with scripter Tang Kit-ming (“Look for a Star”) to deliver a lush tearjerker that aims to do for Beijing what Woody Allen once did for Manhattan, aided by lead thesps Liu Ye and never-better Shu Qi, who successfully navigate the yarn’s insistent heartstring-tugging with credible perfs. On its mainland China bow, pic took an underwhelming $2 million, but will perform better in the Asian hinterland, although slights against Hong Kong residents won’t endear the pic in that territory.
Story begins with a meet-cute moment between lonelyheart policeman Fang Zhangdong (Liu) and Hong Kong good-time girl Li Pei-ru (Shu) in a glitzy, labyrinthine karaoke palace in Beijing. While Fang answers nature’s call, drunken Li enters the wrong bathroom and literally throws herself at the cop. Excited by his demure response, Li pesters Fang to help her back to her luxurious apartment, where she further presses her affections before passing out. Despite Li’s invitation to stay over, Fang makes a gentlemanly exit and leaves for the much more humble abode he shares with his autistic brother, Zhencong (Chinese Olympic diver-turned-thesp Tian Liang).
Pic strains credibility by engineering two subsequent serendipitous meetings for the pair in the Chinese capital, the second of which occurs at a grocery store, where Li forces Fang to pursue her by stealing his vegetables. It transpires that Li is already romantically involved with property developer Andrew (Andrew Lien), to whom she has lent most of her money for real-estate deals.
Fang, whose knees turn to butter every time Li calls his full name, knows she’s way out of his romantic league, but nevertheless lends her money. Dramatic tension tightens as Li’s fascination with the honest, plain-living cop conflicts with her gold-digging inclinations.
Liu, who garnered acclaim for his riveting work in Lu Chuan’s Nanjing massacre movie “City of Life and Death,” captures the essence of a handsome enough, lovestruck guy who can’t help falling for a beautiful woman. Shu matches him with one of her best perfs, and although her character is designed to embody the mainland view of Hong Kong as a hotbed of decadence and greed, she makes Li sympathetic even as she keeps auds guessing about the character’s plans. Supporting perfs exude warmth, and an extended cameo from Anthony Wong as a blind drinking buddy is entertaining, even if he does seem to be channeling Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”
Increasing the melodrama by strategic increments, Tang’s script reps an improvement on her previous efforts. A moment that uses apparent evidence of Fang’s swooning romanticism is later revealed to be the first step in a larger arc of tragedy that dominates the pic’s last third. Unfortunate, the finale sees fate twist the knife once too often, and Tang’s script gets caught up in its own indecisiveness, though Lau’s steady command prevents the proceedings from spinning into hysteria.
Helmer’s stylish work evinces an eye for locations born of his experience as a d.p., and he films his thesps as if they were an integral part of the cityscape, rather than just passing through it. Lensing by Lau and sometime collaborator Lai Yiu-fai captures Beijing’s Olympic-era modernity, and imbues the city’s aging alleyways with lively, colorful charm. All other tech credits are polished.