By Harris Dang
As much frustration it takes to say this, mainland China films have, quite frankly, been terrible lately. No point in sugarcoating it. No point in dulling the blade; the bandage had to be ripped in a fast motion, without any hesitation.
Either sucking up to the customs of the China market (i.e. the rampant product placement/whoring in Patrick Kong‘s “Mr and Mrs Single” ) to being severely compromised and cut to shreds (i.e. Alan Mak‘s “Lady Cop and Papa Crook” ) to overseas films getting in on the action (i.e. Michael Bay‘s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” ) and even films with content that should not be anywhere near children being compromised for children (i.e. the overstated and childish humour in Shin Tae-ra‘s “Bounty Hunters”  and many others), this reviewer’s mood on China films have soured immensely.
So when he heard about a film produced by acclaimed filmmaker Peter Chan Ho-sun and directed by rising director Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung and starring star actress Zhou Dongyu and rising talent Ma Sichun, he was both hesitant and hopeful. So does “Soul Mate” (2018) succeed even with his low expectations?
Based on the web-novel Qiyue and Ansheng by Li Jie, the film follows the lives of the title characters (played by Ma Sichun and Zhou Dongyu respectively) through their 20-year friendship from how they met during lessons of Chinese patriotism in middle school, finding young love, trudging through to university life; drifting through the real world to the eventual outcome of the completion of the web-novel.
The synopsis provided is brief, but it is intended due to this reviewer being apprehensive about plot spoilers. But he is happy to report that this film is fantastic. Everyone from the cast and crew are on point with their roles and it might make it one of the best Chinese films of 2018. Derek Tsang (son of veteran actor Eric Tsang) always had talent and has shown it in many acclaimed films like his co-writing contributions in Pang Ho-cheung films like the Category III slasher flick “Dream Home” (2010) and the contemplative drama Isabella (2006), and has gone onto co-directing understated romances like “Lover’s Discourse” (2010) and “Lacuna” (2012).
“Soul Mate” is a fantastic time-spanning drama and an endearing love-letter to friendship with two excellent performances from Zhou and Ma.”
Now going into solo directing, Tsang has done a great job handling the film through its potential maudlin moments and finds actual integrity within the film’s scope as well as developing a sincere understanding of the characters. The beginning of the film reminded me of Shunji Iwai‘s superlative teenage drama “All About Lily Chou-Chou” (2001), with its use of text overlays being typed to present the story; lending the film a metatextual vibe to the contrast of what is actually being seen and what is being written.
Tsang and his fellow screenwriters also take the melodrama genre tropes and thankfully turn it on its head. Character identities become interchangeable; plot twists change our view of the film almost completely; montages that strangely span longer than usual — all of these moments add a certain unpredictability to the proceedings that will definitely surprise some.
Thankfully, the emotions are identifiable and the conflicts in the film involve little passive-aggressiveness; meaning that the characters say how they really feel about each other with sharp intent. Even the love triangle component of the film only ends up being more of a catalyst of something problematic towards the women that had been seething beneath them long before the triangle even starts; making the character of Su refreshingly incidental.
But none of it would have worked as effectively as it should without the two superlative performances from the lead actresses. Zhou Dongyu has come a very long way since her debut role in Yimou Zhang‘s romantic drama “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (2010) as the timid schoolgirl and has become a more confident actress here in “Soul Mate”. It takes some time getting used to seeing her play such a brash and upbeat person but she does it really well and the spirited facade never overrides her inner emotions in a way that feels jarring.
“There is also a refreshing lack of China market pandering or elements of catering to China film censorship in the film.”
Ma Sichun has been fine in good films like the Taiwanese drama The Left Ear and Sheng Ding‘s true-story thriller “Saving Mr. Wu” (2015), but she’s also been in stinkers like Daniel Lee‘s excrementally [sic] terrible fantasy film “Time Raiders” (2016). But here, she gives a very understated performance that compliments Zhou’s spirited performance, adding credence to their wonderfully realized chemistry. Her reserved attitude pays off in the more climactic points of the film where her explosive anger brings her character to life and it is quite scary and thrilling to watch. And with director Tsang’s direction, the moments of conflict keep the audience on edge at times. Toby Lee‘s performance as the boyfriend in the love triangle is fine, considering what he has been given, but it looks amateurish when compared to the other two leads.
The film also has great production values, with fantastic cinematography from Jake Pollock and Jing Ping-yu and a stirring musical score (with soundtrack choices consisting of classic songs by acclaimed pop idol Faye Wong) — although the score can be a bit intrusive at times, which can irksome. And even though the storytelling is refreshingly different, the outcomes of the story can also put some off due to how maudlin they can become, but the characters are so wonderfully portrayed and well-realized that it shouldn’t bother as much as it could have.
There is also a refreshing lack of China market pandering or elements of catering to China film censorship in the film. Except maybe the milk product placement (although it was on a website the character was looking at) or the fact that the relationship between the two women was strictly platonic (although this reviewer has never read the source material, so he cannot be sure), but those can’t even qualify as nitpicks.
“Soul Mate” is a fantastic time-spanning drama and an endearing love-letter to friendship with two excellent performances from Zhou and Ma, and assured direction from Tsang that is sure to make the audience shed a few tears.