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Soul Mate

Soul Mate (2016)

Ma Sichun and Zhou Dongyu in Soul Mate.

Chinese: 七月與安生  
Year: 2016  
Director: Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung
Producer: Peter Chan Ho-Sun, Jojo Hui
Writer: Lam Wing-Sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yi-Meng, Wu Nan

Zhou Dongyu, Ma Sichun, Toby Lee, Li Ping, Cai Gang, Meng Tingyi, Sha Quanze, Yao Xinyan, Li Haofang, Jiang Tingxuan

The Skinny: Friendship tale about two very different girls is an acting clinic, thanks to great performances by Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun. Director Derek “Son of Eric” Tsang earns a promotion to the top echelon of Hong Kong directors with his first solo feature effort.
by Kozo:

After years of co-directing features (Lover's Discourse, Lacuna) with Jimmy Wan, Derek Tsang goes it alone for his first solo feature Soul Mate. Based on the popular novel “Qiyue and Ansen” and produced by Peter Chan’s We Pictures, Soul Mate is a years-spanning story about a close friendship between two very different girls, Ansen and Qiyue, who first meet at the age of thirteen and would grow to have intertwined lives. Ansen (Li Haofang) is the rebel with the always-on-a-business-trip mother, while Qiyue (Yao Xinyan) is the prim good girl with the loving, always-there parents. That contrast informs their post-middle-school lives; Ansen (Under the Hawthorn Tree sweetheart Zhou Dongyu) enters a vocational school and takes on multiple odd jobs, while Qiyue (Ma Sichun) is put on the track to university and a stable job. Regardless, the two love one another like sisters and are seemingly primed to maintain that closeness for life.

But then it happens: men. Qiyue reveals her affection for her classmate Su Jiaming (Toby Lee), a smart and athletic boy who's the prototypical guy every tradition-valuing Chinese girl wants to bring home to her parents. The more outgoing Ansen pushes Qiyue to reveal her feelings, but while Qiyue is successful in drawing Jiaming's attention, so is Ansen. However, before things get too uncomfortable between her and Jiaming, Ansen embarks on a years-long journey around the world. Meanwhile, Qiyue and Jiaming attend the same college and the girls keep in touch. And yet tensions percolate. Qiyue and Jiaming have minor issues, while Ansen’s constant sign-off on postcards, “Regards to Jiaming”, provide hints at a love triangle. The girls eventually reunite, but by then the tension is so thick that it could probably stop a bullet. Maybe the girls don’t talk about Jiaming but he’s always present. By act two, Soul Mate has essentially become Failed Bechdel Test: The Movie.

Gender politics aside, Soul Mate soars as a representative member of its genre, outpacing its flaws with its terrific everything else. The relationship between Ansen and Qiyue is well-drawn and exceptionally detailed, and the journeys both take are resonant ones. Soul Mate is the story of two girls who reveal themselves to be more alike than you'd think, and the actresses give strong, deeply-felt performances. Zhou Dongyu, who’s long been in danger of stereotyping thanks to her petite frame and innocent demeanor, impresses with a fiery, razor-sharp performance. Ma Sichun gets the less showy and less sympathetic role – because good girls are less appealing than sassy bad girls in the movies – but she’s easily Zhou’s equal. The script gives the actresses plenty of room to operate, as they’re required to convey as much through expression as dialogue. Eventually, the script does provide large swathes of exposition, but matters develop so clearly through incidental detail and performance that when the inevitable info dumps do happen they seem appropriate.

The film’s story flaws are most apparent in the final act. Qiyue and Ansen's youthful days are related in flashback by an adult Ansen, who’s reading an online novel (presumably written by Qiyue) that recounts the pair’s developing relationship. Tension is created by the fact that the girls are seemingly estranged in the present, and there’s implied hope that reconciliation is possible in the near future. Also, Jiaming is still lingering around somewhere and one wonders if he’ll re-enter their lives in a substantial way. However, when the film delivers its big twists, the story is left with gaping holes that make no sense. Derek Tsang’s direction is strong enough to distract from the plot holes, but any reasonable look at the story would show that it holds no water. Soul Mate relies on mysteries that shouldn’t exist and moments that shouldn’t happen to create its most impactful drama. More careful screenwriting could have smoothed these matters over.

Still, Soul Mate compensates in so many ways for its story flaws that it gets an easy pass. Not only are the emotions compelling and familiar, but the production values, from the locations and art direction to the cinematography and music (both songs and score), are all well above par. Acting from the two leads is top notch, and even Toby Lee provides decent presence – though his character is little more than the ball in this girl-powered game of football. Perhaps more than anything, Soul Mate offers discovery. Besides showcasing Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun, Soul Mate places Derek Tsang firmly onto the short list of outstanding young Hong Kong directors. He may be working with producer Peter Chan, who’s been responsible for plenty of acclaimed Chinese films, and obviously played a part in Soul Mate's resulting quality. However, Tsang's previous directorial efforts showed an attention to performance and detail, and offered hope that one day Tsang would do more with his talent. That day has apparently arrived. (Kozo, 3/2017)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
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