A woman’s 30-year longing for the man she can’t stop loving is chronicled in “Somewhere Winter,” a rewarding adaptation of the novel by prolific author and screenwriter Rao Xueman. Fashioned along the lines of a classical Hollywood “woman’s picture,” with modern female empowerment messages injected when the moment is right, “Somewhere” is beautifully filmed by top Mark Lee Ping Bing (“In the Mood for Love”) and features fine performances by Ma Sichun (“Soulmate”) and Wallace Huo (“Our Time Will Come”) as lovers torn apart by fate, family responsibilities and political forces. This handsomely packaged item from producer Jimmy Huang (“Life of Pi,” “Cape No.7”) and director David Wang Weiming (“Sex Appeal”) should receive a warm reception when it opens in China and North America on Nov. 15.
The film’s title refers to “Possibly in Winter,” a 1987 hit by Taiwanese singer Chyi Chin that inspired a teenage Rao Xueman to write to her idol. Chyi’s ballad about long-distance relationships provided the linking device for Rao’s 2018 novel about a woman’s romantic journey during times of great social and economic change in China.
The story appropriately kicks off at a Chyi Chin concert at Beijing Workers’ Stadium in 1991. Scenes of hysteria, scuffling, and police struggling to maintain order paint a vivid picture of China in the full swing of Deng Xiaoping-era reform and modernization. In the middle of the throng is Ann (Ma), a wide-eyed student with a Louise Brooks haircut who desperately wants to get into the gig but doesn’t have a ticket.
That’s until Qi Xiao (Huo), a handsome Taiwanese photographer with a studio in Beijing, appears out of nowhere and offers her a seat next to him. With gorgeous imagery of snow falling gently and sound design silencing background noise so that Ann and Qi may talk gently to each other, it’s the kind of meet-cute that makes instant and enduring love seem like the only sensible option.
The heady romantic mood is sharply curtailed by events set in 2019. Ann is a now a widowed, once-famous Chinese TV talk show host living in Los Angeles with daughter Nian (Vicky Chen), a teenager who considers her mother cold and heartless. On the eve of returning to Beijing to visit her dying paternal grandfather, Nian blames Ann for not looking after him properly. Adding a verbal dagger to the conversation, Nian tells Ann, “You’re good at pulling the plug.”
From these punchy starting positions, “Sometimes Winter” travels backward and forward in time. In the present, Nian comes into contact with Qi Yitian (Austin Lin), the son of Qi Xiao. He’s visiting Beijing to explore a family connection with Nian’s now-deceased grandfather. The discovery of letters and photographs triggers flashbacks to the relationship of Ann and Qi Xiao, of which neither Nian nor Qi Yitian has any prior knowledge.
Packed with high emotion without ever getting too schmaltzy or overheated, these episodes chart the giddy highs and agonizing lows of lovers pulled apart by circumstances including lengthy family emergencies for Xi in Taiwan, government restrictions preventing Ann from traveling with him, letters that never arrive, and the cruel interference of others. Chief among these is Chen Yi Yu (Patty Hou), a manipulative model with designs on Xi. On the opposite side of the ledger is Yu Feng (Wei Daxin), a kind-hearted guy who simply adores Ann and eventually becomes her husband when she believes all hope of being with Xi has evaporated.
Appearing in her second Rao Xueman adaptation following the hit youth drama “The Left Ear” (2015), 31-year-old Ma splendidly conveys the thrill of love and agony of doubt and disappointment that so frequently co-exist in Ann during her long quest for lasting happiness. Huo, who co-starred with Ma in the TV crime series “Love Me If You Dare,” is convincing as the lover whose head and heart are constantly at odds. A solid support cast includes Yao Zhang as Yao You, Ann’s loyal and clever bestie whose formation of a media company brings attention to the phenomenal growth of private enterprise in China since the 1990s.
China’s rapidly changing urban environment is colorfully brought to life by production designer Wang Chih-cheng and costume designer Gao Xianling, though Baby Chung’s traditional orchestral score sometimes lays the strings on a little too frequently. Many viewers are likely to have shed a tear long before a still-svelte Chyi Chen makes a late cameo appearance and helps bring the tale to a most satisfying musical and emotional conclusion.