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The Floating Landscape
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Ekin Cheng and Karena Lam in The Floating Landscape.
Year: 2003  
Director: Carol Lai Miu-Suet  
Producer: Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang, Arthur Wong Ngok-Tai
Writer: Carol Lai Miu-Suet, Lai Ho
Cast: Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, Karena Lam Ka-Yan, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Huang Jue
The Skinny: Drama from director Carol Lai has a great setting (Qingdao, China) and some fine sentiments, but the overall product feels too manufactured and self conscious to rate as anything more than a well-meaning attempt at internationally-accepted art film. Featuring the year's most bizarre casting decision: Ekin Cheng as a dead artist.
by Kozo:
     Director Carol Lai and producer Stanley Kwan are responsible for The Floating Landscape, an art film with more than a few commercial concessions. On the art side, the film features a slow, methodical exploration of letting go, and a pastoral portrait of drab, but believably lovely Qingdao, China. On the commercial side, the film features an attractive cast, drawings from popular writer/artist Jimmy Liao (whose work also inspired Turn Left, Turn Right), and—get this—Ekin Cheng as a noble artist who succumbs to a terminal disease. The mixture looks like it could be a welcome surprise or an egregious miscalculation, but the film turns out to be neither. The Floating Landscape is a well-meaning pop/art exercise that interests, but ultimately proves too inert and calculated to affect.
     Karena Lam is Maan, a young Hong Kong woman who travels to Qingdao, the childhood home of her departed boyfriend Sam (Ekin Cheng). When Sam passed away, he left a promising artistic talent, a head of finely-coiffed hair, AND a landscape drawing that Maan now carries with her. The landscape is of an unknown location that apparently haunted Sam during his final days, and Maan has come to Qingdao to find it. She rents a room from Sam's cousin, and proceeds to delve into his past, all the while keeping an eye out for the landscape she seeks. She ends up befriending local postman Lit (Liu Ye of Lan Yu), who offers to be her guide around Qingdao. Besides being the town's coolest postman (he lets a little kid follow him around on his rounds), Lit is also a budding artist, and the more time he spends around Maan, the more his doodles seem inspired by her.
     Not surprisingly, the two grow closer as they spend more time together, which creates its share of problems. Lit wants Maan to let go of Sam and continue her own life, though he continues to actively help her look for the landscape. Maan seems to be feeling something for Lit, though she represses the feelings and continues to obsess over Sam by transcribing his journal and digging through his old belongings. Sam himself makes himself known through voice overs and flashbacks, which generally portray him in an etheral, even radiant light. Ultimately, Maan must come to terms with her loss, a theme illustrated by more than a few external characters and situations in Qingdao. The lives of others seem to be nudging Maan in both directions, and though closure seems to be her goal, she may not accept it willingly. Meanwhile, Lit draws and pines, and the audience attempts to stay awake.
     The themes explored in The Floating Landscape are certainly worthy, though they're also very, very familiar. No new ground is covered in the script (credited to Carol Lai and Lai Ho), which depicts many of the emotions associated with loss in an almost perfunctory way. Maan experiences overt grief, suicidal emotions, minor jealousies, conflicted desires and many more feelings on the checklist for those who've lost loved ones. That the feelings are genuine is undisputable; what's troublesome for The Floating Landscape is they aren't portrayed in a way that makes them any more worthy than the umpteen number of dramas that came before it. Even more, the slow, languid pace of the film draws out events into almost loosely connected scenes. The characters may seem to experience changes with one another, but the film's blurred sense of time gives little weight to any of it. One moment, Lit and Maan seem to be flirting, the next he's annoyed at her obsession with Sam, and the next they're back to square one. The muted emotions seem real, but they're hardly compelling onscreen.
     The actors seem to embody their characters well, even though the drama is not readily supplied. Liu Ye is both charming and disarmingly awkward, and Karena Lam is sympathetic and emotionally sincere. Both do well with the material, though Lam's performance could have used some additional layers. Maan is a complicated character with complicated emotions, but Lam seems undermined by a calculated script which pretty much tells us what she should be feeling. In too many instances, Maan experiences an emotional flip-flop which is illustrated by a nifty flashback to she and Sam horsing around when he was alive. Those emotions are true to the character, but that they're handled so explicitly makes them less compelling. It might have been more affecting had the film been carried by Maan, and not the numerous flashbacks to a brightly lit Ekin Cheng.
     Which brings us to the biggest problem with The Floating Landscape. No, it's not Ekin Cheng, who barely gets enough screen time to attempt any form of acting. The big problem with The Floating Landscape is that despite its arthouse atmosphere and artistic cred, it still feels somewhat manufactured and overly self conscious. Sure, the emotions are muted to the point of artistically-required boredom, but the conflicts aren't handled with any effective subtlety, and the situations themselves are distractingly artificial. Furthering this is the film's climax, which feels lifted from a Hollywood film and not from the lives and emotions of the characters within the film. Even Qingdao is presented in a strangely artificial way, with emphasis on quaint rural roads and not the encroaching industrial sprawl. It certainly looks pretty (Cinematographer Arthur Wong and art director William Cheung are aces at making stuff look great), but it's also quite obviously staged.
     The filmmakers do surprise with a peculiar narrative device at the end, which injects some welcome lyricism to the mundane goings-on, but it's a case of too little, too late. The end of the film bleeds pop/commercial sensibilites, and ironically, those few minutes actually seem to work better than the slow, arty stuff which came before. That all of this stuff is combined into one film makes it all the more puzzling, especially when it seems to be more separated than actually integrated. If you want to mix art and pop, it's best to go to school with Wong Kar-Wai, and lean on the stuff like mad. Wong Kar-Wai goes all out by mixing popstars and artistic aspirations, and then sets it all to eclectic soundtracks and copious montage. The Floating Landscape tells a rather mundane tale in the expected mundane way, and then gets all lyrical on us at the last second. When the first ninety minutes of your film is slow arthouse atmosphere, and the last ten pop-inspired montage, then you've made two movies and not one. (Kozo 2004)
Awards: 23rd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Cinematography (Arthur Wong Ngok-Tai)
• Nomination - Best Actress (Karena Lam Ka-Yan)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Lok Man-Wah)
• Nomination - Best Costume and Make-Up Design (William Cheung Suk-Ping)
• Nomination - Best New Director (Carol Lai Miu-Suet)
9th Annual Golden Bauhinia Awards
• Winner - Best Cinematography (Arthur Wong Ngok-Tai)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Laser
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Music Video, Featurette, Trailers

image courtesy of Filmko Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen