Taking a rather blatant page from the Richard Curtis playbook of romantic-comedy roundelays, “Beijing Love Story” serves up a chocolate box of disparate narrative sweets, offered in episodic rather than interwoven form. This first feature for writer-director Chen Sicheng (also a member of the ensemble cast) spins off his 2012 Chinese TV series of the same name, albeit sans any returning characters or story threads. Pleasant results manage a trick rather infrequent for this genre, in that the pic actually gets better as it gradually moves away from comedy toward more sentimental material. Launched on Valentine’s Day (natch) in various markets, including nine North American screens, the film set a single-day record for a 2D film in China with $16.1 million, and is sure to generate sequels and imitations.
Running heedlessly toward the requisite “girl of his dreams” in traffic, young architect Chen Feng (helmer Chen) is promptly creamed by a passing bus. Reflecting that he never imagined his story would end this way as he flies through the air, he recalls the fateful night he met Shen Yan (Tong Liya) at a friend’s bachelor party. It’s love at first sight, and surprisingly — especially given that he’s initially very drunk and vomits endlessly — she feels likewise. The problem is that he has no assets, and her parents would much prefer she marry a rich suitor already waiting in the wings.
Chen’s boss, Wu Zheng (Wang Xuebing), merrily brags that over a decade of marriage, he’s cheated nonstop on his wife, Zhang Lei (Yu Nan). However, when she finally figures out what he’s really up to during his nightly “business dinners,” that achievement suddenly doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Her attempts at revenge infidelity don’t go so well, including with her own boss (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who soon jets off for a sinfully glamorous (and expensive) Greek seaside rendezvous with what appears to be his longtime mistress (Carina Lau). But it turns out they’re just role playing in an attempt to jazz up a more conventional relationship.
They’ve come a long, jaded way from home, where their innocent teenage daughter (cellist Nana Ou-yang) is forbidden to enter a TV talent contest with the other members of her string quartet. The boy (Liu Haoran) who has a crush on her — and who can also literally see people’s “auras” — decides to make that dream come true nonetheless. On the opposite end of the age scale, the boy’s grandfather, Old Wang (Wang Qingxiang), is enduring the strenuous efforts of Mrs. Gao’s (Siqin Gaowa) to hook him up with a suitable older lady; he’s unimpressed until she arranges a blind date with an attractive divorcee who has just returned after two decades in America.
Pic moves from initially raunchy comedy through spy-movie parody, sex farce, disarmingly wide-eyed adolescent love and finally bittersweet melodrama, never entirely forsaking humor or an earnest belief in romantic love despite all the surface shifts. While there’s no great originality on display here, “Beijing Love Story” handles its full range of stylistic and tonal gambits with impressive assurance. A strong performance or a well-placed sober moment always brings things back to terra firma whenever they turn a bit over-the-top.
Flashiest in its first reel, especially editorially, the widescreen feature maintains a refreshing attention to composition, color and camera movement in a genre that too often dispenses with visual finesse in favor of TV-style functionality. All tech contributions are high-grade.