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Friday, March 24, 2006

From love to warfare on the home front

Wo Ai Ni

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Zhang Yuan
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

One of the central conundrums of modern Japan is the prevalence of so-called "low temperature" men when it comes to love. Men, so we're told -- most often by frustrated women -- lack passion; they'd rather spend time in virtual pursuits, online or with the game console or TV or pachinko, than be "bothered" with the demands of a flesh and blood partner. Many men, for their part, will whinge that women have become rather "high maintenance," reared on an ideal of romantic love that most men find difficult to live up to.

News photo
Tong Dawei (left) and Xu Jinglei in "Wo Ai Ni"

Judging from the new Chinese film, "Wo Ai Ni (I Love You)," the phenomenon isn't limited to Japan.

Directed by former documentary filmmaker Zhang Yuan, and based on a novel by Wang Shuo, "Wo Ai Ni" is an excruciatingly accurate look at what happens when Mr. Low Temp and Miss High Maintenance move in together. She needs 110 percent of his attention, but he's only got about 20 percent to give. The result? Well, let's just say it proves Sartre's dictum that "hell is other people."

Xu Jinglei, a currently hot actress who also pens China's hottest blog, plays Xiao Ju, a young nurse who's happily engaged to be married. When her fiance dies in a freak accident, she falls into the arms of Wan Yi (Tong Dawei), his best friend. Wan, however, is definitely "low-temp." Ju pushes him into marriage, in a desperate attempt to keep her future of romantic bliss on track, but, as so often happens, desire outpaces reality. What follows is a frighteningly real depiction of a marriage becoming unhinged by the mundane realities of life together, an abrasive crescendo of escalating arguments over the most trivial things.

People often talk about "date movies," but I can only recommend "Wo Ai Ni" as the "anti-date movie." If you're happily in wuv and blissfully content with your perfect partner, well, the rest of us don't want to hear about it, OK? If, however, you want reassurance that you're not the only one suffering through petty arguments over who didn't do the dishes, or not getting enough sex, or spending too much time spent on the Net, or going out drinking with friends, well, here's your film.

Watching "Wo Ai Ni" is strangely comforting in that way; "At least my girlfriend never set the bed on fire," you'll find yourself thinking happily. (Or, maybe you'll have a shudder of apprehension over what the future may hold . . .).

Xu Jinglei and Tong Dawei both throw themselves into this wholeheartedly, and the results are entirely recognizable and truly unsettling. When the couple go at it, you can almost hear the film crew on the set ducking for cover behind the heavy furniture. During one absolutely seismic argument -- one cut after she tells him "I'll never fight with you again," ha! -- Xu and Tong are screaming and wagging their fingers in each other's red faces and the veins on Tong's forehead bulge so ominously you fear he's going to have an aneurysm right there in front of you. This is explosive cinema, like the scenes between Robert De Niro and Cathy Moriarty in "Raging Bull," but stretched out over an entire film. Not for the faint of heart.

Tong's performance reliably reinforces the stereotype of the Asian male, unresponsive and more interested in his noodles than his wife calling from bed.

Xu, however, demolishes that old "demure Asian female" stereotype with the fiery force of an RPG, although the person who created that stereotype obviously never spent too much time surfing the Net.

Men are stupid, women are crazy, so the saying has it. Chatting with director Zhang while he was in Tokyo, I asked him if there was a similar saying in China. After pondering, he came up with this: "Men wish for pleasure, women desire affection." Much more poetic than the blunt U.S. phrasing, I thought, but the director quickly added, with a laugh, "Women have to go a bit crazy to get that affection." And, lest we not forget, "that's because men are so stupid." Some things, it seems, are in fact universal.

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