|Ning Hao, Huang Bo and Xu Zheng get the band back together for the “Golden Week” comedy Breakup Buddies. Sharing some DNA with Alexander Payne’s sleeper hit Sideways, Breakup Buddies is a road movie that tells the story of Geng Hao (Huang Bo), a middle-aged singer-turned-electronics salesman struggling to accept his recent divorce. When he ends up in the hospital after a drunken bender, his best friend Hao Yi (Xu Zheng) decides that the only way for Geng Hao to get over his failed marriage is to try to get laid as much as possible. If that means Hao Yi has to take one for the team and get laid in the process too — so be it, what are friends for? A producer for a “big-budget” sci-fi film, Hao Yi has to make the 3,000 kilometer journey from Beijing to Yunnan to deliver a van full of props. Seizing the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, Hao Yi kidnaps a hungover Geng Hao and heads on a journey to the west.
Also in Beijing, in a parallel storyline, spunky bridesmaid Kang Xiaoyu (Yolanda Yuan) has just been outed as a “leftover woman” during the bride’s speech at a wedding reception. Mortified, Xiaoyu denies the charge and falsely declares to one and all that she’s involved in a relationship. While frantically trolling for a suitable mate on the Internet, Xiaoyu happens upon the song “Go To Dali” sung by, you guessed it, Geng Hao. Inspired and in desperate need of a break from her life and her friends, Xiaoyu books a ticket for the Yunnan province city where she pluckily takes in the local sights and rituals and adopts a cute-as-a-button stray puppy. With that setup, Breakup Buddies leaves no doubt that Xiaoyu and Geng Hao will somehow meet cute in classic romcom style. The only question is will the universe and space-time continuum survive the impact when a black hole of failed love collides with an unstoppable ball of moxie that’s aching to be loved?
It does and life goes on as Geng Hao is finally able to make peace with his failed marriage, but not before he goes on a long and circuitous journey that sees him cross paths with a dancer (Tao Hui) dressed as a Na’vi from Avatar, a teenager (Zhou Dongyu) who Hao Yi has been catfishing on the Internet, a leggy baifumei (beautiful, sophisticated woman; Zhang Li), and a “lady of the evening” (Ma Su). Huang Bo turns in the film’s best performance as Geng Hao, and working through the five stages of grief — from denial and anger to depression and acceptance — allows Huang to use all the skills in his acting repertoire. As the womanizing best friend, Xu Zheng does well portraying the rogue part of his lovable rogue character — the lovable part, not so much, as Hao Yi’s boorish behavior overshadows his admirable devotion to Geng Hao. Lay the blame for this on the writing and not Xu Zheng, however, because the film is more interested in using Xu’s character to facilitate laughs and Geng Hao’s plotline than telling a fully-formed story about Hao Yi. Deftly striking a delicate balance between dauntless and vulnerable, Yolanda Yuan gives a polished performance, while Zhang Li and her legs stand out among the supporting actresses with her turn as an über-competent young woman who gives the road-tripping buddies a lift when they hit a bump in the road.
It’s hard not to think of the 2004 sleeper hit Sideways when watching Breakup Buddies. Besides stunning panoramic shots of beautiful vistas (in the case of Breakup Buddies: Hunan, Dali, Yunnan and, most breathtaking, Lake Erhai), both films share a road trip between best friends, a male protagonist struggling to accept a failed marriage and a jovial rascal on the make. Indeed, the building blocks are all there in Breakup Buddies to tell, like Sideways, a stick-to-your-ribs story about life, love, happiness, success, failure and self-acceptance. However, instead of using Geng Hao’s story to render a well-nuanced human drama, Breakup Buddies uses it mostly to set up jokes. From the opening moments where Geng Hao’s anguish over his divorce leads to amusing interactions with a lawyer and a convenience store clerk to a scene near the end that spoofs the famous hallway hammer fight in Oldboy, Breakup Buddies is, first and foremost, about the laughs.
When it isn’t being used as a comedy platform, Geng Hao’s story illuminates aspects of modern mainland Chinese culture. Shots are fired at the garish tastes of some of its citizens, cheesy tourist rituals, hipster culture in Yunnan and the southwest province’s reputation as a hookup hotspot (not so fun fact: Yunnan has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in mainland China). Breakup Buddies also shows that modernization is expanding beyond the big cities and that people in China have made money and that lots of it is flying around these days. Most interesting is the way the film uses the female characters that Geng Hao and Hao Yi encounter on their trip to depict how the single child policy has impacted traditional gender roles in China. Being the only child of a family has changed the dynamic for women in Chinese society, forcing them to be tougher and more independent. One of the most provocative ideas presented in Breakup Buddies is the notion that it is entirely possible for a woman to exist and exist well in today’s China without need of anything from a man — not one thing, not even the one thing only a man can offer a woman.
On top of all that, Breakup Buddies takes time to drop a few life lessons. Some (“Focus on the solution and not the problem!”, “Face your problem head on and attack!”) are delivered with great effectiveness while others (“Life is more than about making a living.”) fall flat with banality. With the laughs, the cultural observations, the life lessons and Geng Hao’s journey from denial to acceptance, Breakup Buddies is a jam-packed, busy movie that feels a little chaotic as a result. It’s entertaining in moments but not wholly satisfying as the scattershot approach makes the film feel like less than the sum of its many parts. Breakup Buddies is like one of those all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet joints where you can get a little bit of everything done to varying degrees of success. It can fill your belly but it can also easily leave you feeling a spot of indigestion. If you’re all right with having to pick and choose what you can get out of a film, then Breakup Buddies is for you. If you’re looking for something that’s more refined and fulfilling, you’re not going to find it in Dali with Ning Hao and company.
(Sanney Leung, 11/2014)