Love Song 1980
Directed by Mei Feng. China. 2020. 2h7m. # TIFF
Before becoming a director, Mei Feng was better known as an art film screenwriter, one who has established a long and solid collaboration with maverick director Lou Ye, from Summer Palace (2006), Spring Fever (2009, Best Screenplay at Cannes) to the recent The Shadow Play (2018). In these films, Mei acutely sees the turbid poetics of contemporary China and is committed to showing the young urban dwellers’ adventurousness and perplexity in flux. Through collaborations with Lou and other directors, Mei gradually developed a desire to become a director himself. His 2016 debut, Mr. No Problem, adapted a lesser known short story about inland China in the 1940s by one of the most significant figures of 20th-century Chinese literature, Lao She. It turned out to be a smart choice given Lao’s nationwide popularity and the story’s wonderful dramaturgy and tactful language. The film was both commercially and critically well received, winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Leading Actor (Fan Wei, who plays a remarkable supporting role in Love After Love) in that year’s Golden Horse Awards.
In his second film, Love Song 1980, Mei this time adapts a story of college romance when universities finally started to enroll again after the decade in which the Cultural Revolution took place. The film is immersed in nostalgic sentiments, rendering 4:3 ratio, vintage color tone, as well as settings, costumes and old pop songs marked with age, those that we see in Feng Xiaogang’s Youth (2019), Vicki Zhao’s So Young (2013), Peter Chan’s American Dreams in China (2013). However, the heavy coating can barely conceal the story’s insipid quality and the performers‘ uninspired acting. It’s once again the full package of first love & sex experiences, love triangles, loyalty and betrayal between friends and lovers, taboo and violence in student-teacher relationships, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, and accidental death, as in a number of Chinese nostalgic movies looking back to the 80s, 90s, and 2000s released in recent years. A group of young college students are always the center of focus; personal tragedies caused by confused love always happen in similar ways. None of the problems would be resolved and life simply moves on— in the end the protagonists would leave the utopian ivory tower and become miserably rich or miserably poor; some have to leave earlier because of some sort of trauma but they will eventually meet again in order to see how life has equally treated each other. All this as if there is no other version of a youthful life over the three decades; all this since they can’t afford to be as colorfully dreamy as In the Heat of the Sun (dir. Jiang Wen. 1994) or as boldly temperamental as Summer Palace (banned in China to this today).
With China’s harsh censorship of film production, these directors found the safe card in the youth nostalgia theme which guarantees a box office success. The audience will become moved upon hearing the first note of the old song that everybody knows. There must be a certain point, be it a specific cloth pattern or room decoration, that will remind some spectators having grown up in that period of time, about their youth and the rest wishing that they could be as lucky. More significantly, the casting of the most popular stars brings in a crowd of young spectators, who would simply feel exhilarated seeing their idols’ faces and their romantic interactions with some other good-looking pop stars, while occasionally wondering whether their parents experienced the same past depicted on screen. That past is so limited, as talking about it or even discovering it is becoming a taboo; the imagination of romantic love as opposed to arranged marriage or comrade marriage is so barren, as many young people during those years seldom talked to the opposite sex and today many still have close to zero love/sex experience except for those sole relationships that eventually lead to marriage. The diversity of youth is washed away, leaving the only kind of cliche that people are not yet fed up with. In Jiang Wen’s film, youth nostalgia is a cultural icon that marks the short moment when China is emancipated from the ideological burden and could embrace a brand new lifestyle that is still heavily haunted by the past while showing signs of a different future. In recent years, however, this cultural icon is transforming into a two-hour leisure break for people to be emotionally stimulated enough to forget about reality, from which both the general audience and the filmmakers are running away.
Widespread government restrictions have led to a regrettable trend in mainland pop culture: dislocation of verisimilitude. As the pursuit of cultural reliability is discouraged once it reaches certain level, a reliance on sentiment is favored instead, along with costly visual effect, an increasingly inflated fan culture, and various other efforts coming from the outside. Love After Love chooses the love story over a city story or a nation story; Love Song 1980 shows a generic 1980 lacking the incorporeal characteristics that defined it. From movies to tv reality shows, media is losing a genuine dialogue with reality, opting to float above it as critical roots are being forcibly cut off. In turn, it mutates into a strong tranquilizer that uses sensory and emotional stimulation to cover the gaps, attempting to rewrite the perceived history, presence, and future. This does not only wipe out anything that alludes to criticism, but also bleeds out other means of expression, even comedy andmelodrama. Eventually, titles are released in a batch, scratching itches outside the boots (隔靴搔痒). We see beautiful faces, objects, and techniques, but little spirit. On both sides of the screen, variations lessen, vocabulary shrinks, and intelligence is unwelcome.