The marriage vow “till death do us part” takes on new implications in “Love Education,” in which two women fight over the exhumed body of a polygamous man. Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang’s generational drama explores how China’s feudal legacy continues to impact contempo family values. Rippling with gentle irony and worldly wisdom on the philosophy of love, the seemingly soapy plot masks a deft political metaphor within a poignant historical backgound. Chang’s mellow touch makes the film an easy watch, perhaps a little too easy given the way differences are ultimately resolved. Still, this is one film that can resonate with audiences of a certain age across all Chinese-speaking markets, promising moderate combined B.O.
Like a thematic sequel to Chang’s 2004 film “20, 30, 40,” — this time comparing women on the cusp of 30, 60, 90 — the film, co-written by Chang and You Xiaoying, draws parallel relationships that exhibit multiple facets of love shaped by evolving gender roles in society. Although the drama unfolds entirely in mainland China, it alludes to tragic separations caused by the civil war, when millions left their spouses and offsprings during Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan, where they inevitably formed new families. Feuding claims to a marriage’s legitimacy also have connotations of historical cross-straits tensions.
When her widowed mother passes away, the only way Huiying (Chang) can console herself is by fulfilling the filial duty of burying her beside her father — never mind that he has to be dug up from his ancestral grave in the countryside and relocated to the city. So she marches into the village with her docile driving-instructor husband (Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and opinionated TV reporter daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting) in tow.
No sooner have her cousins gotten their spades ready than they encounter the fierce resistance of Nana (Wu Yanshu, “The Book of Love”), the first wife of Huiying’s father. Abandoned by her husband less than a year after their arranged marriage, she has faithfully tended to her in-laws, and now vigilantly guards his grave, which she feels entitled to share one day.
One thing consistent in Chang’s portrayal of women in all her works is that not only are they deeply romantic, none ever gives up without a fight. And Nana is one of the most fearsome yet endearing female figures she’s created. Taciturn, petite, with the face of a meercat, she may embody the Confucian ideal of feminine virtue, but she has a hilarious penchant for pulling the ears of anyone who crosses her, suggesting a childlike impishness. Her stand-off with the shrewish Huiying may smack of catty farce, but it’s also delightfully subversive of traditional decorum.
Back in the city, Huiying becomes hellbent on obtaining proof of her mother’s legal marriage status, but gets sucked into a vortex of government red tape. Chang doesn’t hold back from limning all the unpleasant quirks of a control freak, especially her inexcusible insensitivity to Nana’s feelings. Yet, through a string of fraught encounters and telling conversations, her desperate need for a purpose becomes clear: a schoolteacher facing imment retirement, she senses, and begrudges her daughter and husband cutting loose from her.
Huiying’s frustrating quest to track down documentation of her parents’ past highlights the metropolis’ relentless changes and the transience of her rosiest memories — all of which remind her she’s getting on in years. The anxiety and regret that come with middle-age creep up in an ambiguous friendship with a student’s father (Geng Le). Few actresses except Chang could pull off Huiying’s embarrassment and forlorn hope with such intrepid dignity.
While Huiying idealizes her parents as the perfect couple, subconsciously out of disappointment with her own lackluster marriage, in Weiwei’s eyes, grandpa’s devotion to one wife is irreconciliable with his callous neglect of the other. And when a hometown old flame of Weiwei’s aspiring musician lover A Da turns up at his doorstep with her young son, uncanny parallels emerge between the educated twentysomething urban professional and the illiterate, nonagenarian countrywoman.
The disenchantment of young people leaving their backwater towns for better prospects is one of China’s burning issues. In creating a ménage à trois that grew out of this situation, the film raises the question of how much, or how little, society has evolved in favor of women. Audiences are also compelled to ponder the essence of love — is it driven by possessiveness or sacrifice? Does it comes straight from the heart or is it defined by social institutions? Is it kept alive by time spent together or tested through absence?
The final showdown takes place on a TV show that blows up into a cataclysmic storm, but the tension subsides all too soon. Protagonists’ actions seem rushed, giving the impression that they were shoehorned into a reassuring outcome. Still, one cannot help but warm to the message that it’s never too late to embrace change.
Making his most substantial screen appearance since Chen Kaige’s “Monk Comes Down From the Mountain,” Tian (“The Blue Kite”) gives a slightly unpolished performance that nails his inarticulate, non-confrontational character to such a degree that even a small example of gumption feels triumphantly manly. Lang, who already cut an impressive figure in Johnny To’s “Office” and Larry Yang’s “Mountain Cry,” softens Weiwei’s candid, willful personality with an innocent, sympathetic streak.
Though the script is overstuffed with incident, editor Matthieu Laclau’s measured tempo cuts between three generations’ predicaments without abruptness or confusion. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s annointed DP Mark Lee Ping-bin shot the film in the northern province of Henan, with Zhengzhou and Luoyang providing city and rural scenes, respectively. The visuals are clean, but deliberately emphasize the generic, monotonous look of second-tier Chinese cities. Other tech credits are serviceable.