'Real Love Should Make You Cry'
Chinese romantic comedies are a downer.
By MICHELLE TSAI
When I left the theater after watching "If You Are the One," a Chinese blockbuster released last year, I was bewildered. The movie was billed as a romantic comedy but there had been no long-awaited first kiss -- in fact, no kiss at all. Contrary to the Hollywood formula, there was no dramatic buildup to a confession of love. And the finale centered not on a sunset embrace, but on a graphic of the skyrocketing Chinese stock market. What's the appeal?
"If You Are the One" is no indie dud, however, but one of China's highest grossing domestic films of all time, pulling in over 400 million yuan ($59 million) since its Dec. 22 release last year. It's a popular date flick for Chinese students and professionals.
But "When Harry Met Sally" it is not. The "romantic comedy" genre means something very different in China than it does in Hollywood. In these movies, love isn't depicted as the end goal that couples achieve after a protracted struggle, but also as a struggle in its own right. Love is more linked to tragedy than to comedy. Sammy Shan, a graduate student in Beijing, summed up the phenomenon by saying, "Real love should make you cry."
Take one of the stories in the 2008 ensemble film "Desires of the Heart," for example. A middle-aged divorcee meets a younger man, but their courtship doesn't advance through conventional dates. Rather, she falls ill and her counterpart shows his dedication by nursing her back to health after surgery. He helps her with the decidedly unromantic task of going to the toilet; he holds a tissue to her mouth and coos, "It's okay, spit." Accepting this affection requires relinquishing one's dignity -- the sort of thing that would appear only as slapstick in a Western romantic comedy or in a serious drama.
The love-as-pain theme that seems to sell so well in China leads to some interesting trends in these movies. For starters, actually telling someone you love them is usually just a small part of the plot. A typical declaration can be found in "Waiting Alone," an underground hit from 2005. The male protagonist reveals his affection for his crush as she is about to board a train by saying only, "I've gotten used to you after all these years; it won't be the same without you." That's an understatement in any language.
Add to this an emphasis on money and property as key drivers of a relationship. The connection is particularly evident in today's China, where it's not uncommon for parents to buy homes for their sons so that they will be more desirable suitors. Several plot lines in "Desires of the Heart" hinge on characters proving their devotion with cold, hard cash and property deeds. In one story, a career girl dreams about her boss, but there's no bedroom fantasy. Instead, he showers her with 100 yuan ($15) and $100 bills, covering her body in red and green. She wakes up panting.
Physical pain is also a common motif. Tsui Hark's "All About Women," a light-hearted farce that's been dubbed the Chinese take on "Sex and the City," ends not with a kiss but a sucker punch -- literally. Love also hurts in "If You Are the One." Smiley, the female protagonist, slaps her married lover repeatedly in one scene, which he endures without resistance. The love-pain link is taken to the extreme when Smiley attempts suicide after realizing she can't escape the torturous affair with her lover.
Romantic comedies are fairly new in mainland Chinese cinema. So new, in fact, that when I asked a friend to name his favorite Chinese romantic comedy, he replied, "Does a romantic comedy have to end with the people together?" In China, the answer is probably no.
Ms. Tsai is a free-lance writer in Beijing.
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