Responding to 爱: What if Fictional Love isn’t Universal?

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“…romance movies is a genre that is always easy to watch”
-me, two weeks ago

In retrospect, this quote was a glaringly, poor oversight. Not only was I forgetting about the plethora of terrible, Western romance films (ever seen that one with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock who sent letters to each other in the past/future via a magical letterbox at a lake-house? I erased it from my memory for a reason and you should too), but I also forgot that poor writing and poor film making would be a universal concept. And that trying to watch a movie from another country, that you have no personal connection to, is probably not the best way to watch a new romance movie.

“Easy” was certainly true for the most part of “The Stolen Years”, but enjoyable….used only marginally. My anecdotes of the trip that was my first Chinese Romance Film can be found here, and no I wouldn’t recommend watching this film either. That isn’t too say it was bad, in fact i’d say it was quite similar to any trashy romance you’d pull out of Netflix, with only a few errors in its entirety (it was way too god damn long).

So, why did I not enjoy it? I had thought that if it was a romance, and had the essential story of two people falling in love, whatever else around it wouldn’t deter it from its essential element. Maybe understanding and enjoying fictional love is not a universal concept to me.

Firstly, the nitty gritty about the film. Released in 2013, it reached 23.84 million USD in box office sales, has a 6.1/10 IMDB rating, and had mostly positive and encouraging reviews. The two leads were played by largely popular and talented actors, with the right amount of chemistry between them. And that was probably what kept me hanging on through the film. On paper, the film is good. It had the money and the star power behind it, and surely a demand from a somewhat international audience if it were available for viewing on Netflix. China’s box office is booming, their film industry slowly and surely taking steps forward. While ‘The Stolen Years’ had many similarities I am accustomed to in a ‘classic’ romance drama, there were moments that I was just left at a loss.

Watching any foreign film always presents a bit of a struggle, an adjustment one should say. Requiring a little more brain power than usual to read the subtitles on the bottom and keep track of the visuals on top. I’ve wanted to be that person that can say they enjoy subtitled, foreign movies because I find it ridiculous to refuse to watch something because of something so stupid as subtitles. For whatever reason, when my brother and I were younger he always put the subtitles on in every movie we watched. I read Star Wars before I even understood what I was watching. My current TV is stuck in subtitle settings, in some Slavic language and there is no way to turn it off, suffice to say i’m used to subtitles!

I came in with an open mind, ready to find whatever aspects of the film I found enjoyable or engaging. And looking back two weeks later, it wasn’t as terrible as it seemed in the moment, just littered with terrible moments. Overall, I would say I did enjoy the movie. It was interesting to try and watch something I wasn’t familiar with at all.

I struggled somewhat to connect with the actors, they were good, but not entirely relatable. This could be because I didn’t know them, to be honest I don’t think I can think of any Chinese actors except Jackie Chan. Without knowing the actors, what they did previously, it made connecting to them somewhat limited. Later, I noted, they were both quite experienced in this genre. If it were a film with well known, international actors perhaps I would have felt more connected to the film. The story was at times enjoyable, until the narrative became convoluted and stretched out. It was almost an hour longer than any romance movie i’ve seen, and dangerously close to Lord of the Rings length. This is probably the biggest factor that led to my annoyance with the film. The couple had fought their adversaries and proclaimed their love to one another, a proverbial sunset descending on their happiness aaaaaaaaand then the movie still had 50 minutes left. And I was out of snacks.

There was one moment,  #76 moment to be exact, when the movie suddenly had a Bollywood vibe of an impromptu street performance to woo the girl. Which I actually found enjoyable in its ludicrousness. The movie had many other charming moments, and offered some insight into how Chinese culture viewed a loving and desired relationships between a man and a women that I found interesting. There was an emphasis on power and prestige, elitism and professionalism with them, mixed in with the youthfulness and free spirit the main character becomes once she suffers the memory loss.

I had no prior knowledge to know similar/different a Chinese romance film would be to a Western made chick flick, and I am probably being a bit too harsh with my reactions. I wouldn’t say I assumed to have a blonde bombshell swoop in to win the suave and smooth gentleman, but I had more prejudices than I realised. There were factual inaccuracies through the movie that irritated me, the change in narration halfway through the story for no reason. Visually, the film didn’t math what I expected. It was mostly dull and colourless, handheld camera movements that I hadn’t normally seen in this kind of genre. It made it seem cheaper, grittier.

I think that I was expecting something grandeur and shiny, and this is probably where I had my first epiphany, when I realised that I was expecting this movie to be ‘good’. And I realised that it didn’t have to be good. After all, the stupid lakehouse movie I refuse to talk about probably just had as many things wrong with it, including a ridiculous plot. But the plots were not the core of these movies, the romance is. Melodramatic-romances are rarely ever the stuff of Oscar nominations, they exist as what they are. I taught myself to look away from my assumptions and biases of expecting something of high calibre when I reminded myself that Western films are no better when it comes to melodrama.

 

I obviously can’t judge my experience of international romance off one slightly lousy Chinese film, so my next goal is to watch more. I’ve selected as many as Netflix offers, and consuming more will give me a better understanding and response to romance as a genre. I’ve also started doing some more research into the conventions of Romance, and will be using it as a mind-frame to shape my understanding. Certainly, my ‘truth’ of what I viewed a romance film to be has changed so slightly as my experience is broadened, and will hopefully break through other biases I have against Asia’s versions of particular genres.

 

 

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