“Ever Since We Love” may be strategically packaged as a nostalgic youth romance, but as rendered by Chinese helmer-scribe Li Yu, it turns out to be a far more adult affair. Adapting literary darling Feng Tang’s 2005 novel “Everything Grows,” which chronicles the sentimental education of a Beijing medical student, the film rhapsodizes about biology while meditating on mutability, and in contrast with the affected modesty of so much similar-looking mainland fare, its romantic sensibility is voluptuous to the core. Still, Li’s balancing act of mainstream and arthouse tendencies feels precarious; for all its visual flair, the pic boasts less cinematic power or intellectual depth than her best works, “Lost in Beijing” and “Buddha Mountain.” Whereas domestic and Asian B.O. will hinge on the star wattage of leads Fan Bingbing and Han Geng, overseas festival invites might take some time to trickle in.
The casting of Han (“My Kingdom,” “So Young”), formerly of the K-pop boy band Super Junior, indicates that Li and her longtime producer Fang Li (“Summer Palace”) are eyeing a younger demographic than in their previous collaborations. However, it’s their decision to adapt Feng’s work for the screen that feels like real cause for excitement, especially for a more educated and discerning audience. Hailed as the literary heir to Wang Shuo and Wang Xiaobo, Feng is a Hong Kong-based finance pundit whose erotically charged, quasi-biographical early novels have been viewed as consummate chronicles of youth in ’90s China.
Regarded as Feng’s “Catcher in the Rye,” “Everything Grows” is the second book in a trilogy based on the his personal experiences of growing up and studying medicine in Beijing. The author’s ribald sensibility registers onscreen via a preoccupation with human anatomy and bodily functions, but the medical imagery and jargon get repetitive, and they don’t always connect with Li’s more poetic evocation of carnal impulses. (Augmenting Li’s artsy, offbeat style is the hip animation by artist Skin 3, which pops up at dramatic points in the story.) Also, the idea that Eros and Thanatos go hand-in-hand, just like passion and pain, is not a particularly original one, and the film doesn’t articulate any new perspective.
The film begins with a shot of numerous skulls tumbling out of a smashed glass jar — a macabre memento mori symbol that presages how the central characters will grapple with mortality — during a physiology class at an elite Beijing medical school. Amid the ensuing chaos, fourth-year student Qiu Shui (Han) is introduced along with his rambunctious buddies. Making fun of corpses and even brandishing human bones as weapons in a rumble, their mockery of death captures the fearless defiance of youth. Yet Li doesn’t bother to invest these roles with any feeling or personality, treating them as a mere chorus of voices that sporadically comment (lamely) on Qiu’s dating exploits. Only Shrek-like cherry boy Hou leaves some kind of impression, but only by dint of his comically heavy gait.
The film’s key dramatic arc revolves around the women in Qiu’s life — first love Xiaoman (Li Meng), g.f. and classmate Bai Lu (Qi Xi, intriguingly mercurial) and the older, worldly Liu Qing (Fan, luminous). Compared with her shaky attempt at a psychothriller in her previous film, “Double Xposure,” helmer Li is on surer footing here with the sort of material that has always suited her best: complex women in complicated relationships. In contrast with the phony prudery of campus romances like “Back in Time,” Li’s protags are sexually assertive, her love scenes wantonly sensuous even within the boundaries of Chinese screening standards.
Although Qiu’s memories of Xiaoman are shot in diaphanous, soft-filtered, black-and-white images, she’s not the idealized ingenue seen in so many mainland youth films. Her high-school fling ends with the hard-headed decision to run off with a senior government official; recurring shots of her being driven away in the official’s Mercedes trigger Qiu’s first awareness of China’s class inequality, and female materialism haunts him for life. Qiu’s g.f. of four years is no pushover, either: Bai’s extroverted personality conceals an attention-seeking streak that boils over with an epic tantrum.
These dalliances serve as a prelude to Qiu’s central relationship with Liu, arrestingly played by Fan, who always reveals fragile humanity beneath her diva image. When Qiu first sets eyes on her, she looks as sultry as Rita Hayworth, yet her glamour is tinged with the tragic air of a fallen angel. The scene, which takes place in a hotel lobby, is orchestrated to insinuate how social fluidity in the ’90s spawned new opportunities for women, but also new risks.
Even as each subsequent encounter brings the two closer emotionally, their financial gap widens as she always latches onto older men in higher places. In fact, she initially moves to befriend him as a prospective adviser on unwanted pregnancies, ruefully implying that she’s playing with fire. During one row with Qiu, she unleashes a compelling defense of women whose bodies are both the bane of their existence and an asset to survival, continuing a motif the director previously explored in “Dam Street” and “Lost in Beijing.”
Since Qiu handles most of the narration, his affairs are filtered through his subjective judgement, the unreliability of which is exposed in a melancholy coda that underscores the film’s musings on how men hurt their lovers out of egotism and women forgive them out of love. Moving from a tone of wistfulness to one of profound regret, complete with a lyrical episode set in Inner Mongolia’s Ulanhad desert, “Ever Since We Love” unfortunately dispels its mood with a cliched reunion scene, followed by a gratuitous and feebly ambivalent second finale. Still, what lets down the film most is Han, who doesn’t have the stature to carry the film as the principle role. His boy-next-door image is OK early on, but other than two scenes in which he shows some genuine anger and pain, he expressions are placid and functions mostly as a reactor to drama around him.
Craft contributions brim with Euro-arthouse sophistication, with neither the narrative nor the mise-en-scene relying excessively on period markers. Zeng Jian, who edited and lensed several of Li’s and Lou Ye’s films (“Buddha Mountain,” “Summer Palace” and “Blind Massage”) to such scintillating effect, draws on a sensuous, tactile visual language, using color filters to lustrous effect. Music, jointly scored by Nipponese heavyweight producer Takeshi Kobayashi (“All About Lily Chou Chou,” “Bandage”) and Scottish composer/DJ Howie B (“Mission: Impossible,” “Lost in Thailand,” “Double Xposure”), is an uneven combo of reflective melody and dynamic rock and jazz. Cutting by three editors, including Zeng, is perhaps too indulgent and meandering.