To international audiences more accustomed to the relative restraint of China’s arthouse exports, “Only Cloud Knows,” a slab of toothcrackingly sentimental mooncake from regular national box-office conqueror Feng Xiaogang, might come as a bit of a surprise. This episodic, determinedly winsome love story, told in honeyed flashback, follows a grieving husband as he journeys to the places of significance to his beloved, dead wife across their adoptive New Zealand homeland.
The locations are stunning, the actors attractive and Feng — initially a comedy director, though he’s branched out in recent years to historical epics like “Back to 1942” and dramas like 2017’s record-breaking “Youth” — did not get where he is without learning a thing or two about playing an audience’s responses. So while your rational mind is rebelling against its more shameless manipulations, your hands may well be scrabbling through your bag for tissues, napkins, store receipts, candy wrappers — anything to mop up a flood of saltwater tears so deep, it’s possible a whole pod of whales (a recurring motif) lives within it.
It starts with a shellshocked Sui Dongfeng, aka Simon (Huang Xuan, from Feng’s “Youth”) moving soundlessly through his Auckland home trying to summon the ghost of his pretty wife, Yun Luo aka Jennifer (Yang Caiyu, also from “Youth”). She does briefly appear, but after a chaste hug and a bit of tidying (misty though its view of fateful, soulmate-style love is, the film has a fairly retrograde idea of a woman’s role) and slips away again, leaving Simon bereft. And so he embarks on his very, very sentimental journey, though New Zealand’s picturesque North and South Islands, to revisit the places where they made such sweet memories, and to scatter her ashes.
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Although this modern-day journey is the film’s basic narrative, it is really just a framing device for a movie that, like Simon, lives in the past. And so the real tale is told in two gluttonous series of flashbacks of which, awkwardly, the first is set later in time, detailing the newlyweds moving to a small town called Clyde and opening a Chinese restaurant, while the second covers the couple’s meet-cute as young immigrants to Auckland from Beijing.
These reminiscences are suspended in the amber romance of DP Zhao Xiaoding’s outrageously pretty photography, petted ceaselessly by Dong Gang’s omnipresent, emotive score, and usually cued by someone happening into a slant of golden light, assuming a faraway look and saying, “I remember the very first time I met her…” If Dong’s music spares us a harp glissando to transport us into the past, it’s almost the only trick in the old-school melodrama box it does not use.
The most curious facet of “Only Cloud Knows” might just be its incuriosity. Despite an evident entrancement with the ribbons of roadways that trail through New Zealand’s rolling hills, and the cattle-dotted fields that surround the couple’s new home, there is very little here that approaches anything like commentary on the struggles or rewards of the Chinese expatriate lifestyle in New Zealand. Though we know they both grew up in Beijing, we never find out exactly why either moved away, much less why specifically to this far-flung land.
In Clyde they make exactly one local friend, Melinda (Lydia Peckham), a sparky waitress with an adventurous spirit whose world travels occasionally give Jennifer a little sigh of envy. The rest of their time is spent making the restaurant a success, doing nice little things for each other and playing with their smart, scruffy, rescue dog, Blue. At this point, their oddly self-contained life is one of such picture-perfect tweeness that we’d know tragedy — human and canine — awaited even if the lightly portentous minor-key piano accompaniment didn’t basically skywrite that fact across the massive South Island heavens.
Across this and the earlier time frame, in which Jennifer and Simon meet while both renting rooms from kindly widow Mrs Lin (Feng regular Fan Xu), the film traces their friction-free relationship with plodding fidelity. But though the story is loosely based on the real-life experience of one of Feng’s close friends and collaborators — or maybe because of that — it feels ethereally divorced from reality. Jennifer, despite Yang Caiyu’s best efforts and unerring ability to locate the loveliest light to gaze sadly into, is a sliver of a character, whose air of haunted melancholy, and need for “protection” are frequently mooted, but never really explained, until the film’s unsatisfying coda.
That final revelation is, however, delivered by the wonderful Zhao Shuzhen, so beware that just when you might have put away the tissues for good, the grandmother from “The Farewell” is going to show up to wring a few more out of you. Schematic and manipulative as it is, as a kind of team-effort between the New Zealand Tourist Board and whatever the Chinese equivalent of Hallmark is, “Only Cloud Knows” is, in the moment, undeniably effective at jerking tears. If it does anything like the numbers that Feng’s films have done in the past, expect reports of mass dehydration.