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The Foliage
Year: 2004
Shu Qi and Liu Ye
Director: Lu Yue
Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho
Writer: Huang Jing-Jing, Frank Shi, Wu Ying
Cast: Shu Qi, Liu Ye, Fan Bing, Qi Huan, Chen Chuang, Li Meng-Nan, He Yun-Qing, He Qi-Chao,
The Skinny: Effective acting and fine pacing make The Foliage an involving drama, but inert character development and lack of closure make the resulting film seem rather light. Still, the simplicity of the story belies more subtle, interesting themes, and the storytelling is appreciably hands-off.
by Kozo:
     Shu Qi stars in The Foliage, a China-HK co-production which is at once lovely, restrained, and frustratingly unwilling to reveal too much. Shu is Xing-Yu, a young Chinese intellectual who desires a discharge from the People's Army to return home to care for her sick father. A member of the "Down to the Countryside" movement (a government-sanctioned program which drafted young intellectuals for manual labor), Xing-Yu is responsible for reclaiming the dense forests of China along with her platoon, led by childhood friend and default beau Ding-Guo (Fan Bing). However, Xing-Yu finds romantic competition in the form of rebellious Si-Mong (Liu Ye), a pragmatic intellectual who clashes with Xing-Yu's comrades at the local border town. A violent rift forms between Si-Mong and Xing-Yu's comrades, but Si-Mong seems less concerned with the ill will of a whole platoon than with earning the romantic favor of the shy, yet stubborn Xing-Yu.
     At first Xing-Yu has really no plans to get it on with the smoldering intellectual bad boy, but circumstances begin to push her forward. It's clear to everyone involved that Si-Mong has a thing for Xing-Yu, so her comrades attempt to use her as bait in order to lure Si-Mong out for a serious beatdown. Xing-Yu wants no part of it, but there is incentive for her in the form of a rare company recommendation for discharge. If she helps out her platoon in securing Si-Mong's ass-whupping, she'll get a ticket home, but the price seems too high. Unfortunately, everyone else has ideas for Xing-Yu, and despite her best intentions and burgeoning personal desires, she becomes a pawn in the political and emotional games of the people around her. Love blossoms, but is impeded by personal tragedy, happenstance, and even petty deception. Meanwhile, China marches into the future behind this relatively simple love triangle.
     As a love story, The Foliage has its attractions. Shu Qi is photogenic and suitably convincing as Xing-Yu, and Liu Ye possesses the smoldering puppydog charms of a young Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Their slow romance is presented with appreciable reality and subtlety by director Lu Yue; the film is paced thoughtfully, and with few obvious moves like intrusive music or other obvious filmmaking conceits. Characters are described and developed before our very eyes, and without any verbalized speeches or egregiously manufactured backstory. Likewise, the lives of the indentured intellectuals feels real and immediate. On a general level, The Foliage can prove satisfying with its moments of quiet longing and subtle character change. Shu Qi and Liu Ye appear disarmingly real, and the politics and internal conflics among the main characters makes for some involving drama.
     However, that drama isn't fully realized. Characters reach quiet realizations, but hurt feelings and petty emotions end up getting in the way of everything. That much is okay, as the characters and situations earn such soap opera storytelling, but when the film reaches its last twenty minutes, things don't seem to get anywhere. Xing-Yu, who appeared on the cusp of self-realization for a good two-thirds of the film, seems to retreat entirely into herself, and the choices she makes seem almost bewildering. We're presented with situations brimming with aching romantic longing, but nothing seems to happen besides a few more closeups of Shu Qi's pouty face. Some potentially damaging revelations occur, and while the inert actions that follow seem authentic, they're not given enough weight to merit anything other than a "That's it?" response. And from a filmwatching perspective, the eventual lack of closure just makes everything seem fruitless.
     The Foliage does possess another level, however. The film's backdrop and offhand references to the end of the Cultural Revolution reveal themselves in the character politics, and most especially in the one or two epilogues that occur at film's end. Xing-Yu's role in the conflict between her comrades and Si-Mong seems parallel to the reigning party line, and the eventual fall of the Gang of Four (and the subsequent abolition of the Cultural Revolution) occurs precisely at the time when certain characters return to the picture. Si-Mong's ardent passions and love of art (he admires fossils and takes the time to carve a wooden replica of Xing-Yu's enlarged kisser) make him an outcast at the end of Mao Zedong's rule, and his snubbing by the more clean-cut intellectuals shows that. If nothing else, the insertion of these historical/political references into the film make for interesting viewing, and could provide suitable fodder for those who like to watch their films then chew on them afterwards with their friends.
     Still, when viewed in conjunction with the film's simple story of romantic longing, all of this second-or-third level stuff seems to take the actual picture nowhere. The Foliage even gives us a pseudo-alternate ending, which posits something markedly different than what transpired during the rest of the film, which ultimately begs even more questions. What did the alternate ending mean? Can we read something in the changed behavior of one character? Does their slightly-more-meek behavior imply a greater affiliation to the party line? Or is it simply a "what if" designed to make the audience feel even less happy than they did three or four minutes earlier? Well, my answer is "Who the hell knows?", since the film really doesn't spell any of this out for you. Those seeking film that takes its time and provides something to talk about might like The Foliage for its multiple levels of discussion. Those who attend simply for the photogenic actor pairing will probably be okay for a while, but will eventually end up disappointed because it doesn't deliver on any promised passion. The Foliage is sort of a thinking person's romance, except it doesn't do much talking. And while silence may be golden, it also doesn't reveal a hell of a lot. (Kozo 2004)
Notes: • In a cool move, Mei Ah has included an English-subtitled "Making of" featurette on the DVD. In a not so cool move, the featurette gives away the ENTIRE film, largely because of the interviews with the actors, who don't seem to be familiar with the term spoiler. Sigh.
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Laser
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
"Making of" featurette subtitled in English

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen