China in land... and in orbit
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
Battling for vengeance or romance, the Mandarin-speaking protagonists of "My Kingdom" and "Love in Space" make a grab for universal themes. But even though both were made and distributed by companies with Western partners, the movies are unlikely to appeal to filmgoers who don't already have a taste for the spectacle and sentimentality of Chinese cinema.
Set primarily in 1920s Shanghai, "My Kingdom" is more typical of the Chinese films seen in the United States. It tells a story of illicit revenge and forbidden love, punctuated by lots of kung fu. Much of the action is actually play-fighting, since the two heroes are Chinese opera performers.
After completing their training, pledged (but not biological) brothers Yi-long (Wu Chan) and Er-kui (Han Geng) travel to Shanghai to retrieve the best-performer plaque won from their teacher. This they do with relative ease, but Er-kui has a larger agenda: to kill the seven sons of the prince regent who ordered the decapitation of all the other members of his family. (This gruesome event, its bloodiest moments off-camera, is the movie's prologue.)
Er-kui's revenge is complicated by his attraction to Mu-lang (Barbie Hsu), the resentful protege of the actor he and Yi-long just defeated. Her beauty makes him question his mentor's decree never to have an affair with an actress. Mu-lang is also being pursued by the corrupt general who oversees the British section of Shanghai, home to the brothers' new theater.
Director Gao Xiaosong doesn't do anything surprising with this melodramatic material, but the movie boasts sumptuous costumes and several nifty action sequences. In the wittiest of them, the two opponents clash in a cellar full of wine barrels, which bleed red every time a sword penetrates wood instead of flesh.
Lighter and much more up-to-date, "Love in Space" follows the romantic progress of four unattached women: a mother and her three grown, far-flung daughters. Peony (Angelababy) remains in China, where she's a famous (and famously bad) actress. Lily (Gwei Lun Mei) lives in Sydney, aspiring to be an artist but so germ-phobic she fears getting paint on her hands. And Rose (Rene Liu) is beyond Earth's gravity, one of only two astronauts on a space station.
The other is Michael (Hong Kong heartthrob Aaron Kwok), the ex-beau Rose still loves - and hates. Meanwhile, Lily is squeamishly attracted to a Chinatown garbageman (Eason Chan), and Peony falls for an impoverished wannabe writer (Jing Boran) who doesn't know she's a movie star. All have trouble expressing their emotions in their principal language, so they switch to English for such lines as "I love you," "I miss you" and "go get her." Most of the soundtrack's amorous ditties are in English, too.
Silly and slapsticky, "Love in Space" is too busy devising absurd set pieces to develop the characters or make their mutual attractions plausible. That makes it much like recent Hollywood rom-coms. It seems Chinese filmmakers have learned more than just a few phrases from American movies.
Contains violence. In Mandarin with English subtitles.